Health Star Ratings: What Do They REALLY Mean?

From 2014, you may have noticed a growing number of your favourite packaged food products sporting a star rating on their front. But, what exactly does this rating mean? Today we examine Health Star Ratings and weigh the pros and cons of using them guide your food choices

Health Star System - The Youth Academy

Found on the front of packaging, Health Star Ratings are designed to be a visual representation of the healthfulness of a food by rating products from half to five stars. Just as more stars indicates a more energy efficient dishwasher, fridge, washing machine or dryer, a greater Health Star Rating indicates a more healthful food product. At the moment the system remains voluntary, and not all manufacturers choose to display the ratings of their products

When used to compare like products - for example, apples with apples, or breakfast cereals with breakfast cereals – the system does a pretty good job at helping consumers to quickly identify healthy products. However, consumers are not necessarily aware that the system is only designed to be used within a product category and this is where the problems begin. Inappropriate use across product categories – comparing apples with oranges – has contributed to mistrust in the system. Some have been baffled as to how core food group products could receive more damning ratings than "junk food" items. An example of this being the greater rating received by sugary liquorice over nutritious full-fat Greek yoghurt...

Supermarket - The Youth Academy

Another concern is that the rating system only applies to processed, packaged foods. You will not, for instance, find a Health Star Rating on fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. This sends a confusing message as these are foods that are the Australian Dietary Guidelines works to promote whilst urging consumers to limit intake of processed food products. In fact, it could be argued that the Health Star Rating system indirectly promotes the opposite message. Termed the "health halo effect", there is a fear that by a manufacturer merely placing a star rating on their product, regardless of the rating, consumers may have a false perception of healthfulness toward the product

Equally, it's important to remember that in a time-poor modern era, many consumers are highly reliant on packaged food products. And additionally to this, a lack of knowledge in interpreting food labelling remains a significant barrier in making informed food choices. Therefore, strategies aimed at minimising the burden of selecting nutritionally superior products can be an important public health measure

Blueberries - The Youth Academy

However, a food is much more than the amounts of saturated fat, sugar, sodium and protein captured by the Health Star Rating scheme. It is of equal importance that we think of food in terms of the key nutrients we hope to obtain. For instance, a good milk alternative will contain sufficient protein and calcium to be a suitable replacement for cows milk. Many plant based milk can have drastically different concentrations of the key nutrient calcium, yet both high and low calcium plant milk are able to achieve similar star ratings. In this case, selecting a product totally based on star rating could result in the purchase of a nutritionally inferior product if a low calcium milk is selected.

At The Academy, we consider the Health Star Rating system to be a useful adjunct, but not replacement, to food knowledge and ability to interpret food labelling. When used appropriately the system can be a convenient tool that allows parents & young athletes to quickly assess the nutritional quality packaged food products. However, our focus should always be on fresh, minimally processed ingredients, and foods such as fruit, vegetables and lean meats are superstar foods but don't carry star labelling

Nick Maier