Public support for a re-examination of the Health Star Rating (HSR) system has grown in light of a recent announcement that a bottled water received a two-star rating. Some critics were immediately outraged by the information, which was revealed by carbonated water company Sodastream. "We’ve got a health star rating system that is worse than useless, and does actual harm to people in New Zealand,” said Professor Grant Schofield, a professor of Public Health at AUT. For those who don't understand how the system works or is used, this might be true.
Starlight, a 2017 study conducted by Dietary Interventions; Evidence and Transmission (DIET), found that the majority of consumers use the HSR for convenience and snack foods, bakery items, cereals, and oils. Consumers in the study checked around one-fifth of products for the HSR, indicating that some products concerned them more than others.
Consumers were least likely to view the labels for sugar, honey, eggs, fish, fruit and vegetables, and meat. These are largely considered whole foods, and are products that the HSR system arguably doesn’t cover fully - because it's not what the system was made for. The HSR system was created to inform consumers about packaged products, not well-known, healthy whole foods. The fact consumers are using them less for these products suggests they’re aware of where the HSR system is most useful.
The Ministry of Primary Industries manages the HSR system, which is a trans-Tasman affair. Professor Mark Lawrence of Melbourne’s Deakin University conducted an informal review of Health Star Rated products, and found that its guidelines differed from the Government’s other nutritional reccomendations.
“These [Australian Dietary] guidelines make recommendations based only on whole foods (like eating more whole fruits, vegetables, cereals, meat and dairy foods and less highly processed junk foods) rather than recommendations based on individual nutrients,” said Lawrence. This is the conventional understanding of healthy food, and is possibly why consumers don’t feel the need to check HSRs for these products.
The low-starring bottled water that sparked the furore could not be identified, but chief executive of the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council Katherine Rich suggested a reason for the rating: "It’s true that some sodas score lower, but that’s probably because of the sodium and the fact the products offer no other nutrients," she said. She went on to explain that early in the development of the Health Star Rating system a policy decision was made by governments, nutritionists, and industry experts to award plain water five stars automatically. This can be seen by visiting any supermarket.
Sodastream used the HSR calculator instead of referring to the Health Star Rating Guidelines, which of course led to a lower ranking. Rich called the brand's move a facepalm moment. "Of course it doesn’t work for plain water because there is nothing to rank," said Rich. "It’s plain water. It’s fundamental to life, but it contains no nutrients ranked by the algorithm."
3,900 products currently display a star rating as the system is voluntary. A quick scan of supermarket shelves demonstrates that those with nothing to gain from the system are unlikely to opt into it: more than 22 percent of breakfast products bear the rating stars, and less than two percent of sugar/honey products do so.
Consumer trust in the HSR system has fluctuated for some time, leading to a current two-year progress review of the system – recommendations include limiting the number of stars a high-sugar, high-fat, or high-sodium product can attain.