1 May 2024

Call for health star ratings to be made mandatory

10:09 pm on 1 May 2024
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The system ranges from half a star to five stars - the more stars the better. Photo: 123rf

Health star ratings should be mandatory on all food products, a policy expert says.

The rating has been around for 10 years and yet Health Coalition Aotearoa says it is not being taken seriously after it failed a recent assessment.

An analysis by the University of Auckland has found only 30 percent of products displayed a health star rating (HSR) in the middle of 2023.

That's only 5 percent more than in 2019.

In Australia, 36 percent of products displayed an HSR in 2023.

The voluntary system is a government programme in partnership with Australia. The goal, following a review in 2019, was 50 percent of products displaying a HSR by November 2023, and 70 percent by the end of 2025.

Health Coalition Aotearoa food policy expert panel co-chairperson and one of the authors of the report Dr Sally Mackay said making it mandatory was the bare minimum needed to combat diet-related poor health outcomes.

The health star rating system is used to help consumers choose healthier products within a particular category of food. It ranges from half a star to five stars - the more stars the better, Mackay told Checkpoint.

"It's not very helpful for consumers if it's not on products."

There is no cost for companies to join, apart from the cost of the packaging to put the logo on it.

There was an algorithm to help manufacturers work out the health star rating of their product.

"I guess one of the barriers is that they don't like to put it on the less healthy products because then it shows that they're less healthy and we do find that the health star rating is more likely to be on the healthier foods," Mackay said.

A blue top milk bottle got a 4-star rating, but a strawberry Up&Go got 4.5 stars.

Mackay could not specifically say why that was the case, but said it could be the saturated fat content in the blue top milk, and higher fibre content in the Up&Go.

"It doesn't take into the degree of processing of a food, so that that is part of the issue."

"The idea is to compare foods that are very similar," she said - like milk with milk, or breakfast cereals.

"It's not really designed to compare across categories

"While the health star rating shows to a certain degree the healthiness of the food, it doesn't show how ultra processed some of the foods are. And that's another issue - we really want to steer people towards less processed foods."

She said the system had been around for 10 years, and it should be made mandatory.

"We would also like to see warning labels added because that shows the foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat. They've been used in Latin American countries and that would have to be mandatory because no manufacturer would choose to put them on so."

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