Falling star ratings for 'Ironman Food'

High profile brands could see their Health Star Rating (HSR) slashed as part of a review to make sure the system works for Australians, not just food companies.

A government review is currently exploring improvements to the way HSRs are calculated that could see Nutri-Grain downgraded from 4.0 stars to just 2.5 stars.

Not every product would be worse off - plain yogurts, which have often scored lowly on the scale would see their ratings rise with Coles ‘Greek Style Natural Yoghurt’ go from 1.5 stars to a HSR of 3.0. All minimally processed fruit and vegetables could receive 5.0 stars.

Researchers from The George Institute for Global Health and CHOICE said this would be a win for shoppers and help install greater confidence in the HSR system.

Public health lawyer Alexandra Jones, of The George Institute, said:

“Health Stars get it right in the vast majority of cases, but there have been a number of high profile examples that didn’t seem quite right, causing shoppers to question their reliability. These are promising proposals and we firmly believe they should be adopted when the five-year review concludes in 2019.”

The proposed changes to the algorithm/calculator have resulted from a review of how Health Star Ratings align with the dietary guidelines.

Scores have been adjusted for a range of nutrients – including salt, sugar and protein. Also some foods with a high level of protein are rewarded with higher HSR scores, even if they are also relatively high in sugar. Breakfast cereals appear to be one of the main beneficiaries of this loophole.

Another option being considered is incorporating the amount of added sugar into the algorithm, a move welcomed by health groups 

Katinka Day, Campaigns and Policy Team Lead at CHOICE, said the proposed changes would stop manufacturers from gaming the system by simply adding protein to get higher a star rating.

“Nutri-Grain is marketed as one of the highest protein cereals on the market, but its star rating is masking the fact that the cereal is loaded with added sugars. Most Australians already have enough protein in their diet without having it added unnecessarily to their breakfast.

“We surveyed Australians on health stars and the top three foods they think need improvements are; breakfast cereals, savory biscuits, and fruit juices. The government needs to accept the proposed changes so that these categories are fixed and trust in star ratings is restored.”

CHOICE research found Australians wanted improvements in the Health Star Ratings of:

  • breakfast cereals (79%)
  • savoury biscuits/crackers (79%)
  • fruit juice (78%)
  • sweet biscuits, cakes, muffins (78%)
  • muesli bars (76%)

People also specifically stated that the star ratings of Milo, Nutri-Grain and Up & Go needed to change.

The drinks category also looks set for a shake-up, with policymakers considering removing the ‘energy icon’ only option that allows beverage makers to display the number of kilojoules only, rather than a full star rating. Some of the options also include scaling back fruit juice scores to ensure they score less than whole fruit, given that Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend their consumption only ‘occasionally’ and in ‘small amounts’ given their high sugar content.

Ice confection such as Zooper Doopers will now be scored as drinks, rather than foods, taking them from 3.0 down to 0.5 stars.

Alexandra Jones, of The George Institute, added: “Once the algorithm is improved we can push on with encouraging more manufacturers to use HSR on their products.

“For Health Stars to deliver full benefit to consumers, they really need to be on everything. Latest figures suggest that the system is still being displayed on less than one-third of all items. If industry won’t do this voluntarily, government must seriously consider making it mandatory.”

Consultation on proposed changes to the HSR algorithm is currently open. Submissions are due by 7 December 2018.

Feedback will be incorporated into a report and recommendations by the Independent Reviewer, due to be finalized and delivered to Food Ministers in early 2019.