Healthy eating can be hard, and trying to navigate through the advice offered by various online ‘experts’ can be evenharder. On top of this, many people don’t have the time, knowledge or interest to cut through the noise surroundingwhat constitutes a healthy diet, and really, why should they have to? The Healthy Star Rating System (HSRS), a system designed to provide a quick, easy to understand panel that consumers can consult when doing their groceries.
How does the Healthy Star Rating System work?
The HSRS scores foods based on several parameters. Foods are awarded positive points for their fibre, protein, fruit and vegetable content, whilst points are deducted based on the amount of energy, sodium (salt), sugars and saturated fat that they contain. They are then given a rating from half a star to five stars.
What are the problems with the Healthy Star Rating System?
One of the main problems with the HSRS is that it is only designed to assess the nutritional value of packaged, processed foods. Whilst this makes it useful for comparing similar foods, it has the potential to mislead consumers, causing them to believe a food is healthier than it in fact is. Regardless of the rating displayed by a processed product, the Australian Dietary Guidelines state that a healthy diet is predominantly comprised of foods from the five main food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, lean meats and poultry, and dairy). These foods are, at most, minimally processed.
Another potential flaw is the weighting applied to the various nutrients, particularly those for saturated fats and total sugar. Long thought to be one of the leading nutritional causes of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity, saturated fat appears to be one of the most heavily penalised nutrients in the HSRS calculations. Although it is still recommended that saturated fat intake be kept to under 10% of total daily intake, recent research has begun to uncover sugar’s role in the obesity epidemic. In fact, recent studies found that sugar inprocessed foods is a larger problem than saturated fat. This sort of uneven weighting is what has led to strawberry flavoured liquorice ranking higher than Greek Yoghurt.
Finally, savvy food companies have found loopholes which allow them to display their products as healthier than they may in fact be. For example, Milo gains a rating of 4.5 stars because it is rated based on Nestle’srecommendation to consume it with a glass of skim milk. Kellogg’s went back to the drawing board and reformulated Nutri-Grain. By dropping the sodium and increasing the fibre content, its rating increased from 2.5 stars to 4. But a40g serve (about 1 cup, and who eats a single cup of Nutri-Grain at a time?) still contains almost 3 teaspoons of added sugar – for breakfast. And what do companies do if they can’t get their food to an appropriately appealinghealth star rating? They simply don’t display it. The HSRS is not compulsory, and many companies are only adding the ratings to foods that get favourable results.
So is the HSRS useless? Not exactly. With a better understanding of how it has been developed, the HSRS can still beused to guide your next shop. Keep these tips in mind next time you’re in the supermarket:
1. Compare apples to apples.
The HSRS was designed to compare foods within a similar class. That packet of oven chips may have more stars than that Pink Lady apple, but that does not mean the chips are the better choice. Because the HSRS does not specifically take into account the vitamin and mineral content of foods, it is not designed to accurately assess the nutritional value of fresh, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables or meat. It is most useful, however, when comparing similar foods, to find the healthiest of thebunch. So if you’re looking to purchase the healthiest muesli bar available at your local supermarket, the HSRS can help guide your decision.
2. Discretionary foods are discretionary foods, irrespective of the number of stars they may have been awarded.
As the Australian Dietary Guidelines states, these foods should be limited to a maximum of once a day. The number of stars they display does not change this.
3. Minimally processed, fresh foods will almost always be more nutritious than their processed counterparts.
Navigating and evaluating nutritional information can be challenging, but don’t be alarmed. In his book ‘In Defense of Food’, author Michael Pollan suggests three rules to follow when choosing healthy foods: “Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable and C) more than five in number”. It might seem overly simplistic, but if you follow these rules, you can be sure the quality of your diet will improve. Stars be damned.
If you’re still confused, come on in and see Jono!