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Food labelling gets the star treatment – How can you decide if a food is a healthy choice

Nutritionist Aloysa Hourigan explains how the new food star labelling system makes it easier to make healthy decisions.

When you go grocery shopping how often do you pick up a food item and need to spend ages deciphering all the information presented on the food label?

You need to decide if the marketing messages could possibly be true and very carefully scan the nutrition information panel and ingredients list on the back of the product (if the print is not too small to read!), or try to interpret the daily intake percentage thumbnails on the front-of the pack and then, you can analyse all this information and decide if the product is ‘healthful’.

Chances are, even with all this careful thought and consideration, it still might not be that clear what the health and nutritional value of the product is. Well now, a government-approved new star health rating system has been developed to help solve these shopping dilemmas!

For some years, consumers have identified they would like the information on food labels to be more consumer-friendly, so that it will be easier to make a healthy choice. It was clearly identified in the Blewitt report, Labelling Logic (2011), that a front-of-pack labelling system to make it easy for consumers to identify the more nutritious choices at a glance, was desirable. Exactly what this would look like has been the source of debate for some time. The food industry did not like the option presented by the Blewitt report of a traffic light system in which the colour red identified unhealthy foods, because that might impact on consumer perception of the product.

Finally, in June this year, agreement was reached by State and Federal food regulation ministers to adopt the the new star health labelling system. This system has been developed over the previous 18 months by an expert working group including representatives from the Public Health Association of Australia, the Heart Foundation, CHOICE and other agencies.

The new system will be voluntary, but if there is not significant uptake by the food industry within two years then the government will move to make the star health rating system mandatory. So, this means initially, it may take a while before you start to see the new labelling system appearing on products but hopefully, food industry will make the change and help consumers to make healthier food choices.

So what will the star health rating system look like? And what information will it provide?

The new star health rating will be similar in look to that for the energy rating used on whitegoods.

The message will be simple and straight forward – the higher the star rating the better the food is for you. The star rating will be placed on the front of a product so that it is highly visible and will range from a half star to five stars. The actual rating will be determined by a calculation that considers the level of nutrients in the food that consumers most want to know about and are associated with diet-related disease. These include; sodium, saturated fat, sugars, and kilojoules. The calculation will provide a reasonable viewpoint on how healthy the food is. While it won’t be telling you everything about the food’s full nutritional content, it will be a good guide if you are trying to achieve and maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of or management chronic disease such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.

A five star rating means the product is definitely a healthy choice but a one or half star means you would not choose such a product for its nutrition value – and it only should be eaten occasionally (or not at all!). The key nutrient information will sit underneath the star rating and be shown either per 100g/ml of the product, or per pack where the product is designed to be consumed as a single serve.

So here’s hoping the star health rating will be taken up by food industry so when you go grocery shopping you’ll be able to decide on healthier choices at-a-glance.

“The message will be simple and straight forward – the higher the star rating the better the food is for you.”

Aloysa Hourigan is the Nutrition Program Manager at Nutrition Australia Queensland