Health Star Ratings being gamed by the food industry, according to a new report
Food giants including PepsiCo, Mondelez and General Mills are failing to use Health Star Ratings (HSR) across any of their packaged food products, according to the results of a new study.
Researchers from The George Institute for Global Health examined the uptake of HSR since its implementation four years ago, and found 28% of products eligible to use the system were now displaying a HSR. However, they also found that use of stars was far from consistent and widespread – conditions that government previously suggested were essential for the system to remain voluntary.
Lead author Alexandra Jones, Research Fellow with The George Institute for Global Health, said:
“Australian shoppers deserve to know the truth about what they are eating, and it’s simply unacceptable that some of biggest brands are failing to disclose what’s really in their products.”
Big variations existed in the use of the system by large manufacturers. Coles topped the list - displaying HSR on over 1000 products - more than 85 per cent of its own brand range. Combined with Woolworths and Aldi – the three retailers were responsible for over half (54%) of all products displaying a HSR.
Other companies with over 50 per cent uptake included Australian Health & Nutrition Association (Sanitarium), Simplot, Nestle and Coca-Cola Amatil, though Coke’s use of the system was limited mainly to use of the ‘energy icon’ only variant, which gives consumers information on the kilojoule content of an item, but not its Health Star Rating.
At the bottom of the pile, food giants PepsiCo, Mondelez (brands include Cadbury and Bel Vita Breakfast range), San Remo, Oriental Merchant and General Mills (brands include Latina and El Paso) failed to show a HSR on any of their surveyed products in the paper published in Nutrients. Shockingly, half of the food manufacturers had HSR on less than one in five of their products. IGA, for example, displayed a HSR on just one of its 151 own brand products.
Co-author Maria Shahid, Data Analyst with The George Institute, said: “It is encouraging that almost a third of products now displayed a Health Star Rating, up from around just 13 per cent in 2015. But, if some retailers can do such a fantastic job, then it begs the question why can’t all manufacturers follow suit? Consumers need Health Star Ratings on all products, regardless of healthiness, for transparency and to usefully guide their choices.”
Modest uptake of Health Stars can be contrasted with progress on other food labelling initiatives. In 2016, Australia adopted new Country of Origin Labelling requirements, with compliance mandatory by 1 July 2018.
“Widespread implementation of Country of Origin shows the feasibility of compulsory labelling changes,” Ms Alexandra Jones said. “It’s disappointing that companies updating their labels haven’t added Health Stars at the same time.”
The review also found that in its current voluntary state, Health Stars continue to be used primarily as a marketing tool for those items that score towards the higher end of the five star scale. Of the products currently showing a HSR logo, more than three quarters (76.4%) displayed a HSR of three stars or more. By contrast, only nine per cent of products eligible to receive a HSR of just one star were actually displaying it.
Most manufacturers use the system inconsistently - systematically providing information less frequently on their less healthy items. Except for Coles, Woolworths and Campbell Arnott’s, the mean HSR of products displaying a logo on pack was higher than products made by that manufacturer not showing a HSR logo. Nestle, for example, had a mean of 4.0 for products displaying a HSR logo, but only HSR 1.5 for the third of its product range that did not show a star rating.
Concern was also raised about the use of the ‘energy icon’ variant of the label. Official policy documents suggest it can be used for small packages, but researchers found much broader use, predominantly on sugary drinks and confectionery.
Professor Bruce Neal, Deputy, Executive Director of The George Institute, Australia said: “The Health Star Rating was brought in to provide Australian shoppers with simple, at-a-glance information about the nutritional quality of foods and drinks. There’s good evidence that people understand and use the Health Stars logo to make better choices. By contrast, there’s no evidence the energy icon does the same. Widespread use of the energy icon on products like sugary drinks and confectionery is gaming of the system. Government needs to close the loophole and industry needs to be up front about the very unhealthy nature of these products.
“Food companies that don’t put Health Star Ratings on their labels, or hide behind the energy icon, are on pretty shaky ground. Government really should make Health Star Ratings mandatory and food companies should walk the talk.”
A formal five year review of HSR is currently underway, with results from that review due in late 2019.
 The review only provided individual results for manufacturers with more than 100 HSR eligible products. See Figure 4 HSR uptake by manufacturer.