Sugary cereals like Nutri-Grain and Milo would be the biggest losers in a shake-up to the federal government’s health star rating system, proposed by the nation’s largest consumer advocacy group.
CHOICE wants the algorithm used to score food products changed, to penalise “added sugars” that are not naturally found in foods.
When it applied the alternative algorithm to more than a dozen products, it found the health star ratings of cereals such as Nutri-Grain, Uncle Toby’s Plus Protein and Milo dropped from four out of five stars to just one-and-a-half.
Sanitarium Soy Milk Vanilla Bliss and Golden Days Apricot Delight lost one star each.
CHOICE policy and campaigns adviser Linda Przhedetsky said its modelling showed a lot of products were not being accurately represented by the star rating system.
“Some of the findings from our work really surprised us, because we found some products could actually lose as much as two-and-a-half health stars – that’s extremely significant.”
The health star rating system is designed to give an “at-a-glance” overall health rating of packaged and processed foods.
Foods are rated from half a star to five stars, depending on how many “positive nutrients” and “risk nutrients” they comprise.
They lose points for energy, saturated fat, sugar and salt, and gain points for fruit and vegetable content, protein and fibre.
But Ms Przhedetsky said not all sugars are created equal, and the Health Star Rating algorithm should treat them differently.
“The system doesn’t distinguish between the extra sugar that’s added to foods like breakfast cereals, and the naturally occurring sugars in dairy or fruits,” she said.
“Health stars are an important tool for making decisions about the food and drinks that we buy, and incorporating a penalty for added sugars will ensure that the algorithm better reflects current nutrition advice.”
Companies sugar-coating products
Health advocates have been pushing for the federal government to adopt a range of recommendations from a draft report into the system, after a review was agreed to by state and federal ministers five years ago.
One recommendation is for governments to set an uptake target of 70 per cent by the end of 2023.
Currently, only 30 per cent of products in Australia have health star ratings. The Cancer Council’s nutrition and physical activity committee’s chair, Wendy Watson, said that was far too low.
“If a food company is only choosing the products they want to choose to put the health star rating on, they’re using that as a marketing advantage,” she said.
“The idea of the health star rating is for consumers to be able to make healthier choices … it was mandated, it would be a level playing field, and all food manufacturers would have to put the health star rating on all their products, not choose which products to put it on.”
But a spokesman for the Australian Food and Grocery Council said the industry already had widespread uptake.
“According to research by the Heart Foundation delivered to the forum on food regulation, over 13,000 products have carried the [health star rating], which is the fastest uptake of any voluntary system in Australia and is quicker than international versions,” the spokesman said.
There are also calls for the government to go even further than the draft report’s recommendations, with some advocates saying added sugars should be included on nutrition information panels.
Currently, they include only a total amount of sugar.
“The sugar that’s now on the nutrition information panel is made up of natural sugars that are occurring in the products such as sugars from milk, and sugars from fruit, but also added sugars, and at the moment you can’t tell the difference,” Ms Watson said.
“Added sugar is what affects people’s health and we know if we eat too much added sugar, we’re likely to gain weight, and that puts us at risk of a lot of chronic diseases, including 13 different cancers.
“If people can see how much added sugar is in their food, they’ll be able to choose more wisely.”
Meeting delayed, but will decisions be?
States and territories were meant to meet this Friday with the federal government for the ministerial forum on food regulation, where the final report’s recommendations were due to be discussed.
But the ABC understands the forum has been delayed.
It is understood agenda items will instead be circulated out of session for approval by ministers.
Momentum appears to be building for change, with submissions on the draft report by most state health departments indicating in-principle support for many of the report’s recommendations.
But before any changes are made, the Australian Food and Grocery Council said the definition of “added” sugars needed to be consistent to avoid consumer confusion.
“An on-going consumer education campaign will also be critical for consumers to truly understand the context of added sugars labelling in an overall diet,” a spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for Nestle said Milo Cereal had been significantly improved compared to nutritional guidelines and competitor products, while a spokesman for Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain said the health star rating system was working as it was designed to, by helping consumers make healthier choices.