If you’ve googled how to use the Health Star Rating you probably found the not very useful official guide from the Department of Health. You may also have noticed that many nutritionists and dietitians aren’t impressed with the system. The Health Star Rating took such a long time to come out because Government, food industry and health agencies couldn’t agree on a system to suit everyone. Which isn’t a surprise as such a system can’t exist.
Providing an easy to read, quick-look icon on the front of a packet means that a lot of complex nutrition information has been turned into a simple single output. There is obviously information that’s going get lost. But it can be helpful, especially if you’re an in-and-out sort of shopper. You just need to know how to make the most of it.
How the Health Star Rating Works
All products are analysed by looking at a 100 g portion (not a serve size). Points are added for;
- fibre, and
- proportion of fruit/vegetable/legumes
But points aren’t awarded for micronutrients like calcium or iron.
Points are taken away for;
- sugars (total, not just added)
- sodium (salt), and
- saturated fat.
It doesn’t consider additives or preservatives or natural vs synthetic ingredients.
Products range from ½ a star to 5 stars. A food or drink automatically starts with a ½ star handicap for being edible (ie: not drain cleaner).
The one thing that still doesn’t sit quite right with me about the Health Star Rating is that it follows a nutrient-based approach, which we have moved away from. Instead of obsessing about individual nutrients, we’re much better off concentrating on a food group based approach. So you’ll have to remember the good old 5 food groups as you do your shop and use the health star rating to choose specific packaged products within those groups.
The health star rating is voluntary. Which means that not all products are using it – but many are and you’ll have notice it popping up more and more. We’re two years into a 5 year implementation plan. It is hoped that it will become mandatory in 2019. In the meantime, the Foodswitch app on your phone will scan a bar code and tell you how many stars it would have.
The system was designed to compare similar products. A bag of licorice with 2.5 stars isn’t better than a yoghurt with 1.5. It just means that the licorice worked out better than other lollies. The 1.5 star yoghurt is likely to have more added sugar and additives than a yoghurt with 4 stars. When you look for a specific type of food, choose the brand with the highest stars.
The system has already led to some foods being improved as brands don’t want to be the worst product in a category. Last year, Nutrigrain reduced the sugar reduced by 17% and sodium by 25%. Don’t run out and buy any though, it’s still 26% sugar (over a quarter!) and has 26 ingredients.
Problems with the Health Star Rating
For staple foods we eat a lot of every day I want to see 5 stars. For things we eat in smaller amounts, like snacks, I look for 4 stars (5 is a bonus and these foods make me skip and take a photo for Instagram so everyone can find them). I have my own rule that anything 3 or above is food. Generally, anything under a three is edible yes, but not going to do you much good. A 4 or a 5 is good food.
Having said that – there are always exceptions to the rule. The system does have some anomalies:
- Unprocessed Cheese only gets 1.5 stars. This is because it’s compared to other products in it’s category (like milk and yoghurt) which are much lower in fat. Cheese is a nutritious source of calcium and is a better snack than a bag of licorice.
- White sugar has ½ star but syrups (golden, agave rice malt) have 1½ . The water content of syrups makes them more dilute. But as far as our health risks of free sugars are concerned they are all the same. (So use my rule – less than 3 stars? Not a real food, eat little and only sometimes.*)
- Up n Go gets 5 stars. It certainly is a better choice for breakfast than a juice or a chocolate bar. For a meal, food is always better than a drink. But if you must, a quick banana smoothie would be much better (1 cup milk, 1 Weet-bix, 1 banana).
- Milo gets 4.5 stars when it’s made up 20 g WITH 200 ml skim milk (sneaky right?!). So the actual milo is diluted and has added calcium and protein. Without the milk it’s only 1.5 stars. So be careful how you make it up, especially for kids.
- Fruit juice gets 5 stars. So yes, it’s better than fruit drinks (25% juice) or cordial but fruit juices are still counted as free sugars by the WHO and we need to limit them. A juice that’s mostly veg with one apple gets the same 5 star rating as a juice made with 12 oranges.
- Filling your trolley with 5 star foods might not mean you end up with the healthiest selection from the supermarket. Instead, try and swap your regular brands for one with a higher rating.
- Foods for infants are exempt from the Health Star Rating.
I think the Health Star Rating can quite useful. It’s growing on me. The more I explain it to clients, the more I realise how useful it is to someone who doesn’t have the time or desire to decipher the nutrition information on the back. That could be because it’s all we’ve got (and the %Daily Intake thumbnails really are awful). So we’re going to have to make do with the Health Star Rating. Here is my guide to getting the best out of it for your family and how u can use it to improve your health by guiding the foods you put in your trolley.
- Fill your trolley with fresh foods (the best foods are fresh and don’t have packets and ratings)
- Compare similar foods. Use it to find the best yoghurt, breakfast cereal or muesli bar.
- Use it to find hidden nasties (Why does my instant brown rice have 4 stars but instant wild rice only have 3.5? oh look at all that added sodium and fat).
- Use it when choosing treat foods (like potato chips) to get the best of a bad bunch
- Don’t use it to decide between sugars and syrups. Pick one based on flavour and price. Always use as little as you can. In our house we use honey (taste), maple (taste), raw sugar (taste/cheap) and white sugar (cheap). I can’t even remember the last time I any to a shopping list.
- Get the Foodswitch app on your phone. This could be a good activity to keep kids busy and close by at the supermarket.
Unfortunately, I think you still need to decide on the best foods for you and your family the old fashioned way sometimes, and look at the ingredients and nutrition information panel. No front of pack system is going to be able to tell you the full story at a glance.
If reading food labels still leaves you in a spin, book an appointment with me. I will come with you to do your next food shop and together we’ll find a trolley worth of healthy food the family will actually like.
Sarah Moore is a Registered Nutritionist in Perth Western Australia. She offers private consults in the privacy of your own home and specialises in weight loss, family nutrition and switching to a whole foods approach.