Case Study #2
Insight into the health star labelling system for food products in Australia
Katherine G. Elliston, University of Tasmania
This case study outlines the health star rating system in Australia and the debate surrounding its implementation and design.
Rates of overweight and obesity are increasing. Most recent estimates state that 63.4% of adults in Australia are overweight or obese (Huse et al., 2017). In order to tackle the rising rates of overweight and obesity, the Australian government in conjunction with industry, public health and consumer groups created health star labels for packaged food products. The health star labels are displayed on the front of products to provide consumers with an indication of the overall nutritional profile of the product. The health stars are calculated on the nutritional profile within 100 g/mL of a product and includes assessment of its energy, risk nutrients (including saturated fat, sodium and sugars), and positive nutrients (including fibre, protein and the proportion of fruit, vegetable, nut and legume content). The health star ratings range from 0.5 to 5 stars, and are designed to allow for ease of nutritional comparisons between similar products. Health stars are promoted to consumers through the slogan ‘the more stars, the healthier the choice’ (Australian Department of Health, 2016).
The health star labels began to be rolled out in Australia in 2014 but has since been criticised for being a flawed and misleading system. One of the primary concerns of the health star labels is that participation in the labelling system is voluntary; companies can choose to label products with high health star ratings and not assign health star labels to products with lower nutrient values. Alongside this, some foods such as unpackaged fruit and vegetables are exempt from the health star labelling system. Due to inconsistencies in labelling, consumers may be misled into thinking that any product with a health star label is healthier than products without the labels. The creators of the labels have fought against this concern arguing that promotion of the health star labelling system has enabled consumers to understand the health stars are best used to compare the nutritional value of products within the same food category. When health stars are used for same-category comparisons they provide a quick reference on the healthiness of different-branded products.
A two-year review into heath star labels in Australia showed that an increasing number of products are displaying the health star rating and consumers are changing their purchasing behaviour based on products health star ratings (Health Star Advisory Committee, 2017). Despite the health star labelling successfully changing some consumers’ behaviour, the system could be improved. Mandating the health star labelling would help to ensure its application is consistent across all packaged food products, and an independent regulating body who is responsible for checking the labels for accuracy is warranted so that manufacturers adhere to the labelling system responsibly. A five-year review of the health star labels in Australia is due for release in mid-2019.
Australian Department of Health. (2016). Health star rating system: About health star ratings. Retrieved from http://healthstarrating.gov.au/internet/healthstarrating/publishing.nsf/Content/About-health-stars
Health Star Rating Advisory Committee. (2017). Two year progress review report on the implementation of the health star rating system, June 2014–June 2016. Retrieved from http://healthstarrating.gov.au/internet/healthstarrating/publishing.nsf/Content/673FC1FC9C6446C3CA2581BD00777FE8/$File/Two%20year%20progress%20review%20of%20HSR%20system%20-%20update%20report%20V2.pdf
Huse, O., Hettiarachchi, J., Gearon, E., Nichols, M., Allender, S., & Peeters, A. (2017). Obesity in Australia. Obesity Research & Clinical Practice. doi:10.1016/j.orcp.2017.10.002