The health star rating 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.
In Australia, it is estimated that 67% of adults are overweight or obese (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018). In order to combat overweight and obesity and facilitate healthy food choices, the Australian Government created health star labels for packaged food products. Health star labels are displayed on the front of products and are designed to provide consumers with a quick indication of overall healthiness of a product. Health stars are calculated based on examination of the nutritional profile within 100 g/mL of a product. Nutritional assessments consider the products 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). Health star ratings range from 0.5 to 5 stars and are promoted to consumers through the slogan ‘the more stars, the healthier the choice’ (Australian Department of Health, 2016).
The roll out of health star labels began in 2014, but has since been criticised for its design and for misleading consumers. Of primary concern is the health star labels are awarded on a compensatory system, whereby healthy nutrients can balance out unhealthy nutrients. For example, fibre can be added to products to ‘balance out’ their sugar content, leading to a higher health star rating. Furthermore, participation in the health star labelling program is voluntary and is regulated by food manufacturers. Manufacturers decide when and how to apply the health star ratings to their products (Becher, Gao, Harrison & Lai, 2019). 2018 estimates found that only 31% of Australian supermarket products carry a health star rating (Health Star Rating System, 2019). Mandating participation in the health star labels is likely to increase its application and ensure it is applied consistently across products.
Health star ratings are awarded based on the assumption that products are consumed as per packet instructions. Recently, Milo, a chocolate powered drink, was awarded 4.5 health stars because if it is consumed as per the packet instructions with reduced fat milk, the nutrients from the milk balances out the nutrients contained within Milo. However, Milo is rarely consumed according to the packet instructions; individuals use more Milo powder and less milk in their drinks than the packet instructions, resulting in a less healthy drink than the health star label would suggest. Establishing an independent regulating body who is responsible for checking the labels for accuracy may help to ensure manufacturers adhere to the labelling system responsibly.
Finally, the health star ratings are designed to compare the healthiness of similar products. For example, comparing different brands of chilled desserts, not desserts to yoghurts etc. This can mislead consumers to thinking they are buying a healthy product when in fact it may be the healthier brand among a series of overall quite unhealthy options. Nevertheless, despite the flaws within the health star labelling system, approximately 23% of consumers have reported to change their purchasing because of the health star labels (Health Star Rating System, 2019), suggesting it is nudging individuals towards healthier food purchases.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018). 4364.0.55.001—National health survey: first results, 2017- 18. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4364.0.55.001
Australian Department of Health. (2016). Health star rating system: About health star ratings. Retrieved from http://healthstarrating.gov.au/internet/healthstarrating/publishing.nsf/...
Becher, S. I., Gao, H., Harrison, A. & Lai, J. C. (2019). Hungry for Change: The Law and Policy of Food Health Labeling. Wake Forest Law Review. Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3352241##
Health Star Rating System. (2019). Health star rating system: Five year review report. Retrieved from http://www.healthstarrating.gov.au/internet/healthstarrating/publishing....
1. What are some of the consequences of having a voluntary system for food labels?
- May result in only healthy products receiving health star labels
- If labels are applied to all products, it can be difficult to compare healthiness across different products
2. Why might it be problematic to issue health stars based on foods being prepared as per packet instructions?
- Food may be consumed quite differently to the instructions
- Doesn’t reflect the nutritional profile of the product, instead, it reflects the nutritional profile of the meal/snack as a whole
3. What are some of the consequences of having a compensatory system where some nutrients balance out others?
- May mislead consumers into thinking the product overall is healthy when in fact it’s not
- Can lead to manufacturers modifying products to receive the highest health star rating possible - even when the product itself is not particularly healthy