Study finds unhealthy products are scoring too high

The Australian Health Star Rating system (HSR) is under review after public health researchers found unhealthy foods were scoring high results and misleading consumers.

Researchers from the George Institute for Global Health have criticised the Australian HSR system, which is commonly used by food manufacturers to show the nutritional value of a product.

The rating system was originally designed to overcome the complexity of nutritional labels and help consumers make informed decisions while shopping. Products are rated on a scale of 0.5 stars (least healthy) to 5 stars (healthiest).

The researchers outlined four major concerns with the HSR system.

The HSR system is not compulsory

A HSR is displayed on only 31 per cent of food products in Australia. Brands are opting out of having the star rating displayed on their lower scoring products, while products scoring higher are more likely carry the star rating.

This means that the rating system is only used to motivate consumers, not warn against unhealthy choices.

Healthy ingredients can outweigh the unhealthy ingredients

A big flaw in the HSR system is that unhealthy products are still able to get a high score.

This is because the rating is based on the overall nutritional value, and the inclusion of healthy ingredients (i.e. fibre, protein and vitamins) cancel out the unhealthy ingredients (i.e. sugar, saturated fats and salt).

Medical centre professionals say that this is most commonly seen with breakfast cereals, which despite their high sugar content, can score highly.

Nutri-Grain for example, gained a controversial 4-stars because of the high fibre content, even though a third of its contents is sugar.

“Many parents would be horrified to learn that for every three mouthfuls of Nutri-Grain, one is just sugar, while a small bowl contains twice as much sodium as a small packet of chips,” Executive Manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC), Jane Martin said.

HSR is based on the serving suggestions

A product’s score is based on the serving suggestions, including the nutritional value of other suggested ingredients. Many brands have been accused of altering the serving directions of a product to maximise the health rating. 

Milo was able to gain a 4.5-star rating based on the serving suggestion of having 2 teaspoons with a tall glass (400mL) of skim milk. While Uncle Toby’s oat products recommend adding chopped fruit and bananas.

This practice is misleading and the unrealistic serving suggestions do not accurately represent the nutritional value of the product inside the box.

HSR is based on the product category

Product ratings are only comparable against products in the same category.  Two products with the same rating are not necessarily equal. For example, a 4-star type of milk cannot be compared to a 4-star muesli bar.

Unhealthy products are scoring higher than healthy ones, simply due to their category.  This confuses the customer and fails to reveal the healthiest option.

Do you use the health star rating when purchasing food products? How would you like to see the system improved?