Katherine Rich, Chief Executive, NZ Food & Grocery Council

Provided by Katherine Rich, chief executive, NZ Food & Grocery Council.

"Consumer watchdogs have a vital role to play in guiding people in their choice of everyday consumables. In New Zealand we have Consumer NZ, in Australia they have Choice. Their positions demand they act responsibly, and that means doing their research and choosing their words carefully. To do otherwise would be unfair and misleading.

But that’s exactly what Choice did by calling for a review of the Health Star Rating system as reported on the Supermarket News website. Choice said a review was needed to improve labels so that foods high in added sugar received lower star ratings, because the Health Star algorithm treats all sugars the same.

So, where have they been unfair and misleading?

For a start, the HSR system has been under review for more than 18 months now, and Choice would know that. At best, that’s disingenuous of them and is designed to advance their argument by confusing people.

If they were doing their research, they would also know that, as part of the review, added sugar was tested on the algorithm and was found not to be as effective in allocating the star rating as is using total sugar. Basically, using added sugar gave less-healthy foods more stars than they currently receive from using the total sugars component.

Choice would also be aware that the HSR system is easy for consumers to understand since it is an interpretive whole food system that doesn’t focus on particular nutrients.

Those groups that speak against HSR tend to be the ones that did not want the scheme in the first place and wanted traffic light labels: red for stop, green for go etc. That scheme would certainly have created some embarrassing anomalies, such as giving soda more green lights than milk.

Almost without exception, critics of the HSR system unfairly focus on only two products (Milo and Nutrigrain) as supposed examples of the system’s perceived failings, from the 3500 products that were put through the algorithm before it was launched and from the thousands since. If there was a basic flaw in the system, as they claim, surely they could come up with other examples. Choosing the same old two is misleading and, again, designed to confuse.

As a wise person said to me, “the HSR is designed to evaluate the whole food, not confirm a person’s prejudices” against certain brands.  Interestingly, opponents of the scheme alternate between criticising the HSR and calling for it to be mandatory. Go figure.

There is no perfect food labelling system, but the HSR is close to it. The rollout of the system, which was developed by governments, nutritionists, and food production experts, has been a success, with many thousands of products throughout New Zealand and Australia now carrying the star ratings. It has also encouraged a significant amount of reformulation to reduce sugar, salt, fat and increase fibre.

It’s time to accept that the main gains come not from fiddling with labels on packaged foods, but from the bigger issues such as getting more of us to eat the recommended servings of fruit, vegetables, and other healthful foods."