Is the Health Star Rating misleading?

29th May 2020 | Eativity editors

A new study into food labelling has shown the current Health Star Rating system may be misleading consumers by giving a “health halo” to many popular junk foods… Including those that are marketed towards children.

Research led by Sarah Dickie from Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition found three-quarters of ultra-processed food and more than half of discretionary food products displayed a Health Star Rating of 2.5 stars or more.

Dickie says the results showed that consumers are not always getting meaningful nutritional advice from a Health Star Rating and this threatens to undermine public trust in the system.

“The Health Star Rating is the most prominent nutrition policy in Australia,” Dickie says. “The message that more stars equals healthier food is widely understood by the public. But our research shows the stars don’t always match dietary guidelines. They can be confusing to those who use stars as part of their purchasing decision.

“An effective health label should be discouraging junk foods, not promoting them.”

Is the Health Star Rating misleading?
Many popular junk foods have been given a false “health halo”, the study claims.

What’s written in the stars?

The study looked at all new food products displaying the Health Star Rating label launched between June 2014 and June 2019, evaluating their Health Star Rating against the Australian Dietary Guidelines and NOVA. This is a classification system based on processing levels.

The results showed 73 percent of ultra-processed food products and 53 percent of discretionary food products displayed a Health Star Rating equal to or more than 2.5 stars.

“Ratings as high as 3 or 4 stars on junk foods can easily mislead consumers about the healthiness of packaged foods,” Dickie says.

Some examples of ultra-processed and discretionary food products with Health Star Ratings that don’t reflect their true nutritional value include:

Atkins Smooth Chocolate Low Carb Protein Shake – 5 stars
Berri Quelch 99% Fruit Juice Icy Tubes – 5 stars
Streets Blue Ribbon Vanilla Bean Reduced Fat Ice Cream – 4.5 stars
Uncle Tobys Milk & Oats Vanilla Flavour Milk Protein Crisps Bar – 4.5 stars
Arnott’s Tiny Teddy Oat & Honey Biscuits – 4 stars
SPC Orange Flavoured Jelly with Diced Peaches – 4 stars
Freedom Foods Crunchola Choc Chip Chewy Bars – 4 stars
Tegel Tempura Battered Chicken Nuggets – 3.5 stars
Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain To Go Nutri-Grain Flavoured Protein Squeezer – 3.5 stars
Woolworths Buttermilk Pancake Shaker – 3 stars
Uncle Tobys Roll-Ups Passionfruit Flavoured Rolls – 3 stars
Four ‘N Twenty Toppers Mac ‘N Cheese – 3 Stars

Is the Health Star Rating misleading?
Can you trust the stars? It may be lower in fat or sugar, but it could still be ultra-processed.

Mixed messages

Some of these products may have reduced salt, sugar and fat to obtain a higher rating. However, they remain ultra-processed junk that isn’t needed in a healthy diet, Dickie says.

She claims her findings suggest the health star rating system fails to capture the complexity of whole foods and dietary guidelines.

“The algorithm underpinning the Health Star Rating system is based on only a handful of nutrients,” she says. “It doesn’t account for the level of processing or the form of the whole food. This discrepancy could lead to mistrust in the system; the symbol may be seen as just another marketing tactic by manufacturers.”

This study is the first to view five years of data on food products since the Health Star Rating system was introduced more than five years ago.

“It is timely,” Dickie says. “Because the plan to implement changes based on a formal five-year review from the Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation is expected later this week.

“The international food regulator Codex is also developing guidelines for the use of nutrient profiling in front-of-pack labelling. So this is clearly an issue beyond Australia.”