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Seeing stars: What is the Health Star Rating System and how do I use it?

Posted by Shannon, January 2015 

If you've noticed stars popping up on the front of selected food products in the supermarket recently but had no idea what they mean, you're not alone.

In June last year the Federal Government announced that a new Health Star Rating labelling system had been agreed for packaged foods Australia-wide. Recently, the scheme's explanatory website went live, so Australians like you can learn more about what these stars mean and how they can help you make healthier choices.

What is the Health Star Rating System?

The star system is a voluntary front-of-pack labelling system which rates the healthiness of products using a five-star scale. It uses a scientific formula developed in consultation with government to rate the overall nutritional profile of packaged food and assigns it a rating from ½ a star to 5 stars.  The more stars, the healthier the choice.  It is designed by category, so you can compare the healthiness of similar foods within a category such as cereals or cheese.

Under the star system, positive nutrients in a product such as a high fibre or calcium content will tend to increase the star rating, whereas higher levels of potentially harmful nutrients (such as fat and salt) tend to decrease the star rating.  The labels can also be used to show the amount of energy (kJ), fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium in a product, as well as a selected positive nutrient, such as fibre.

How will it help me in the supermarket?

Unlike existing nutrition labelling, which can be confusing, hard to interpret and are commonly located on the back or side of packaging, the stars will be prominently displayed, allowing ‘at-a-glance' comparison between products in a category.  Basically, they will make healthy choices easier!

Will the star system solve the problem of poor diets in Australia?

No single initiative will solve Australia's wide-spread obesity problem by itself, but public health groups believe that the star system it is an important step in the right direction.

Poor diets and high rates of overweight and obesity are complex problems in Australia and are challenging to address.  Governments, businesses, communities and individuals all have an important role to play in bringing about changes to shape healthier diets and active lifestyles. 

The Obesity Policy Coalition – a partnership of health groups established by Cancer Council Victoria, Diabetes Australia - Victoria, VicHealth and the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University – is also advocating for other important policy measures to improve health including reducing children's exposure to unhealthy food advertising, ensuring healthy foods are affordable for all Australians and displaying kJ information on menus at chain food outlets.

Widespread adoption by manufacturers of the star system, coupled with an education campaign, is one important step to improving diets and will help to empower consumers to make healthier choices.

Why is improved food labelling good news for Australians' health?

Increasing consumption of energy-dense processed foods is a cause of overweight, obesity and poor dietary health in Australia, leading to poor health outcomes. Overweight and obesity are risk factors for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. So it's hugely important that Australians have access to clear information about the nutritional quality of different products to allow informed decision-making. 

The personal and economic costs to Australia from poor diets, overweight and obesity have a huge detrimental impact on our communities. Measures to empower healthy choices, like the star system, will help to improve the length and quality of life of generations of Australians into the future.

Why don't all products have stars?

At present the scheme is voluntary, meaning it's up to manufacturers and retailers to add the labels over the next five years. Health groups, including the Obesity Policy Coalition, are urging all food manufacturers to adopt the star system and place it on the front of food packaging as soon as possible, so it is hoped that more stars will appear in supermarket aisles over the coming year. Already several large food companies have committed to implementing the star system.

There is a natural incentive for healthier products to adopt the star labels more quickly than less healthy products, because they can carry more favourable star ratings. So if a product on the shelf doesn't display the stars, it might be worth taking a closer look at its nutrition label before putting it in your trolley!

For more information about the new labelling system, visit the Health Star Rating System website.

Shannon Crane is Media and Communications Adviser at Cancer Council Victoria.

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