The facts about health star ratings on food choices

Food star ratings don’t always tell the true story. But getting to know how to interpret nutritional labels on pre-packed foods can help us make healthier choices overall.

The government-led Health Star Ratings scheme is intended to help consumers make a healthier choice by comparing the nutritional value of products within the same category, via an easy-to-understand graphic on the front of a packet. It’s been in place since 2014, and just over 7000 supermarket products now display health stars. But in some cases, companies are using the system to make their unhealthy products look better than they actually are.

Consumer watchdog CHOICE commissioned a national survey in 2016, to understand the effect that health stars have had after their first two years in action. It found that people are looking at health stars to choose a product and are using them as a way to make healthier choices in their lifestyles.

The most recent government research also confirms that most people like health stars and want to see them rolled out across more products. Additionally, one in three people who are aware of health stars have used them to switch to a healthier product they wouldn’t normally buy.

On the flip side, subsequent findings from the same 2016 CHOICE survey show some people are losing confidence in the system. This is primarily due to a number of outliers where foods with high levels of sugar, salt, saturated fat and few positive nutrients carry high ratings. Products such as potato chips, Paddle Pop ice creams and sugary milk additive Milo received high health star ratings, giving them a “health halo” that doesn’t reflect their real nutritional value.

Just recently, Milo removed its 4.5 health star rating which was based on the assumption that Australians prepared it by adding three teaspoons of the mix to 200ml of skim milk. But it was found people consumed it in a variety of ways, like sprinkling it on ice-cream, increasing their daily sugar intake. On its own, Milo scored a meagre 1.5 stars.

“One of the first things consumers should realise is that health star ratings are not mandatory by the manufacturers, so it’s not an accurate representation of all products in that category,” says naturopath Chantelle Bell.

“This leads consumers to believe that products without health star ratings on the packet can be unhealthy, which isn’t the case,” adds Bell.

So, what else should we be aware of when it comes to health star ratings?

Health star ratings at a glance

Under the system, packaged foods receive a star rating up to five based on their nutritional profile. This includes energy (kilojoules), risk nutrients such as saturated fat, sodium (salt) and sugars, and positive nutrients including dietary fibre, protein and the proportion of fruit, vegetable, nut and legume content.

“Even with this information the rating system is misleading as it’s not looking at foods as a whole,” explains accredited nutritionist, Tracie Connor.

“For example, a three-ingredient wholesome butter receives half a star, while a 13-ingredient margarine gets five stars because it’s lower in saturated fat, even though it’s more processed, filled with additives, stabilisers and oils that we know aren’t as healthy,” says Connor.

“Not comparing the overall health and nutrient levels is where this system is flawed and remains confusing for many people when they’re shopping,” she says.

“Furthermore, the rating does not differentiate between natural and added sugars or mention any harmful preservatives included for flavour or to extend the shelf life of a product,” adds Bell.

“Some manufacturers also beef up their ratings by calculating that consumption of their product is consumed with a healthier choice,” she says.

Take Greek yoghurt as another example. It’s a natural full-fat whole food, which is healthier for you because it includes gut-friendly cultures without added sugar.

“But compared to a low-fat fruit based yoghurt which is full of artificial sugars, preservatives and thickeners, Greek yoghurt will have a lower star rating because of its full-fat status,” explains Bell. “Overall, full-fat dairy is healthier as it’s more the wholefood and is better for us that way.”

How to make healthier food choices

Understanding the ingredients list is a wise way to make food choices that are truly healthy.

“It’s mandatory for every packaged food to note all of the ingredients it contains, and by understanding these you’ll better understand what you’re eating and drinking,” says Connor.