Will the ‘Health Star Rating’ system help consumers make better decisions?

The adoption of the ‘Health Star Rating’ food labelling system, announced this week by Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye, is a positive move that will help consumers make more informed food choices. The new system uses a star rating scale from ½ to 5 stars and, except for some exclusions such as alcohol, is able to be used on all packaged food products for retail sale.

In joining with Australia’s voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labelling system, we are embracing a labelling system that is easy to understand and, importantly, evaluates the whole food not just individual nutrients. Foods with more stars reflect better nutritional value. The number of stars is determined by an algorithm that considers the overall nutritional value of the food.

As such, the star rating system will be an important guide, making it easier for shoppers to identify more healthy choices. I’m expecting that the system will be embraced by both manufacturers and the public.

The food industry is frequently and unfairly criticised by academics and commentators unwilling to recognise the constant evolution of food choices. The food police would have you believe that food producers are seeking to harm consumers whereas the industry already plays and will continue to play an important part in helping people to make good choices. That is one of the reasons why the food industry has actively participated in this project.

The food industry recognises the challenges a consumer faces when making food choices. That is why we see a constant stream of new food products and improved old favourites to offer consumers a large range of healthy food options. This variety provides consumers with the flexibility to satisfy different dietary needs and different lifestyles.

While it is a positive step, on its own new labelling will not in itself solve this country’s obesity challenge. It is an enabler to help the public. Obesity is a multifaceted health issue that involves biological, behavioural, and environmental sources. Consumers are of course the most important player in the solution to the obesity challenge because they make individual choices about food and lifestyle.

 In addition to cultural and psychological influences, a number of other motivators have been identified that affect consumer decisions: taste, quality, convenience, and price. Although consumers indicate that healthy eating and good nutrition are increasingly important to them, sales and surveys continue to show they are more concerned with taste, convenience, and price. More information will help balance that purchase decision.

The reality is that despite health advocates’ claims that the public are ill-informed about what they choose to eat, our obesity statistics are not driven by lack of knowledge. Relatively few adults wouldn’t recognise any given product in a supermarket as being good or not so good for you.

Rather it is about the quantity and balance of foods eaten and the total energy used as part of their lifestyle that determines health outcomes. A single food, a single meal considered in isolation of the whole diet is irrelevant.

This is why the oft-promoted traffic-light labelling system was rejected by the advisory group. That system evaluates each nutrient separately and does not give an overall rating to the food. Nor does the traffic-light system recognise both positive and negative nutrient levels relative to the New Zealand dietary guidelines.

Supporting the adoption of the new labelling system, the Minister also launched an online calculator that will enable food businesses to determine their products’ nutritional value under the Health Star Rating food labelling system.

This will help the food industry determine the star ratings for its products taking into account the entire nutritional value of the food, in line with New Zealand’s Food and Nutrition Guidelines. Also available is the style guide for the new system, which provides guidance on the appearance of food labelling. This will ensure a uniform look and feel to the labelling system will help consumers quickly identify those products that are part of the system.


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