Over the last few months I’ve been asked to comment on the Health Star Rating System that is replacing the Heart Foundation Tick on packaged foods. Why is the Heart Foundation Tick being retired and what are the advantages of the new system?
I believe that replacing the Heart Foundation Tick with the Health Star Rating is like putting a bandaid on a broken bone. I believe it will NOT lead to improvements in the health of Australians. In fact I think it sends the wrong message to consumers: that processed foods are a healthy option as part of a regular diet.
Most processed and packaged foods (but of course not all packaged foods) need to be viewed for what they really are: an emergency option for when I need to fuel my body in a hurry and I don’t have time to cook a meal. Not something I eat every day – other than packaged items such as raw, natural nuts, plain unflavoured, unsweetened dairy products, rolled oats or the occasional tin of artichokes.
If you read the fine print on both the Heart Foundation and Health Star Rating websites, they actually say just that. But that’s not the message that comes across the loudest.
Most things start with good intentions and 26 years ago (in 1989) so did the Heart Foundation Tick. Three positive outcomes achieved by the Tick are:
- Reduction – if not elimination – of trans fats from the Australian diet
- Reduction in salt consumption
- Mandatory nutritional labelling on packaged foods
So the Heart Foundation gets a tick for that! However there were major flaws with the system:
- The tick did not take into account the added sugar content of processed foods, which we now know is one of the biggest threats to our health. Excess sugar contributes to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, chronic inflammatory conditions and much more. The Star System aims to redress this omission by taking into account the sugar content of foods.
- The fact that a food had a tick shows it was already a compromise in terms of a healthy choice because it meant it was processed. The foods that we need to eat most – fresh vegetables, fresh fruit and fish – don’t have labels so they can’t carry a Tick or Star. Therefore the best indication of a healthy food is that it’s physically impossible to put a label, Tick or Star on it!
- Ticks and Stars were only designed to help people make comparisons between less healthy food stuffs and not as a license to eat more of them. This is plainly stated on both websites however it is not public knowledge.
- The Heart Foundation Tick lost all credibility in 2011 when it granted the Tick to McDonalds Fillet-o-fish burgers and chicken nuggets. This earned the Heart Foundation $300 000 per year from McDonalds. The rationalisation given by the HF was that it wanted to encourage fast food outlets to use healthier ingredients. This is a nonsense. If something is intrinsically unhealthy, replacing one ingredient will not negate the damage caused by the remaining ingredients. Giving McDonald’s a Tick encouraged people who did not eat it in the first place to think it might have some health benefits after all. This is utterly irresponsible and actually contributes to confusion and worsening health. The Heart Foundation later removed the tick but the damage was done.
- The Heart Foundation website cautions: “Keep in mind that while a product may have the Tick, it may be something you will want to eat only occasionally.” This actually renders the Tick meaningless because most people did not realise the Tick was a comparative measure – they saw it as carte blanche permission to eat as much of the food as they wanted.
- This is by no means an exhaustive list of Tick shortcomings but you get the point.
So will the new Health Star Rating System change anything? No. For a start, it still has flaws #2 #3 and #5 as outlined above. In addition, it is a voluntary system. That means if a food manufacturer does not receive many stars it can choose not to reveal its rating. Would you publicise a low score if you were a food producer? And shoppers won’t know if a food without a star rating has not been rated or is choosing not to display a poor rating. This renders the system meaningless.
My critical point is not to be lulled into a false sense of security if you see a food with 5 Stars. The campaign’s main message – ‘the more stars the better’ – is misleading because it doesn’t spell out clearly enough that Stars relate only to processed and packaged foods that are compared to foods within the same category.
We’ve made our lives complicated enough so let’s keep eating simple. Choose fresh, whole, unprocessed foods that have been interfered with as little as possible. Eat with joy and awareness and savour every mouthful. When we tune in to our bodies and notice subtleties of taste and texture, we will intrinsically know what nourishes us.
*This HeB appeared as an article in the January edition of Great Health Guide.