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Is the end near for ANZ’s Health Star Rating?

Many concerns have been raised over the credibility of Australia and New Zealand’s Health Star Rating (HSR) in recent years, but a ruling last week classing fruit juice as less healthy than a diet cola has further intensified debate. 

The Health Star Rating, established in 2014 by the Australian Government, is a voluntary labelling system that rates packaged foods and beverages based on nutritional information such as energy, saturated fat, sugar and sodium. 

At last week’s meeting, food regulators met to decide how juice should be rated under new guidelines to penalise sugar content. Their decision will see fruit juice drop from a five-star rating to as low as two stars.

Coca-Cola Australia, which sells a wide selection of non-alcoholic beverages across its portfolio, confirmed that the changes will impact juices containing higher levels of sugar.

“While our Keri Orange Juice is 99.9 per cent orange juice, it naturally contains 8.6g sugar per 100mL and therefore receives 3 stars. Diet Coke is sugar free so receives 3.5 stars,” the company said on its website. 

Coca-Cola, which has focused largely on its “No Sugar” range in recent times, is now transitioning to the star icon after using the HSR energy (kilojoule) icon across the portfolio since 2014.

Confused messaging

Ausveg, the peak industry body for the Australian vegetable growers, said it was disappointed about the decision on fruit juice and believes that it will confuse consumers. 

“It is our view that the broader health benefits of natural fruit and vegetable juices should have been taken into account with the decision around the Health Star Rating system, especially for natural products such as fruit and vegetable juices,” James Whiteside, CEO of AusVeg, told Inside Retail

“We should be making it easier for people to decide what is healthy and what is not; myriad research and advice from nutritionists and scientists highlights the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables for maintaining a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle.”

About 3 per cent, or 93,000 tonnes, of total annual vegetable production in Australia is consumed in juice form each year, according to AusVeg.

Whiteside believes that anything less than a 4-star rating for fruit and vegetable juices could undermine the entire system and send a message to the public that soft drinks with artificial sweeteners are healthier than fruits and vegetables.

Complexity of food

Sharon Natoli, founding director of Food & Nutrition Australia, said the latest changes represent “further fiddling” with a system that is just not working. 

“[These] anomalies will continue to arise for as long as there are efforts to try and sort food into a five star system,” Natoli told Inside Retail

While Natoli believes the nutritional value of individual foods is important, she said it’s not as important as the overall balance of foods in the diet.

“This is a message that the HSR doesn’t get across,” Natoli said. “The HSR also doesn’t take into account the degree of processing a product goes through and research shows that ultra-processed foods for example, independently of their nutrient content, increase the risk of chronic disease. Like people, food is very complex which is why it doesn’t fit nicely into a five star ranking system.”

The media scrutiny and backlash from industry over the latest decision on juice is adding to consumer mistrust in the system, according to Natoli.

“In the end, this has the potential to back fire on the industry, as trust is one of the greatest currencies in business.”

Better education

Natoli believes that efforts to encourage healthy eating would be better focused on simple behaviour change strategies.

“My perspective is that public health attention and funding could be more effectively directed toward encouraging simple behaviour change strategies, such as encouraging home cooking, teaching kids to cook, eating predominantly fresh foods, and sitting down to eat with others around a table,” she said.  

“Food contributes to health in many more ways than through its nutritional value and I think we often forget this.”

She points to research from the British Journal of Nutrition on the French Eating Model, which found that eating meals regularly, sitting at a table with other people and considering meals as a moment of pleasure, reduces the risk of over wand obesity by around 10 per cent. 

“I think there’s something really valuable in focusing on the joy of food and eating, and balancing the rational with the emotional, social and cultural elements of food and eating. These are equally important factors when it comes to health and wellbeing – just because they can’t be ranked doesn’t mean they should be overlooked.”

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