Once again I found myself in the grocery store. The frequency in which I find myself there is a little alarming. It feels like I spend half my life (and pay cheque) at the damn place.
As winter creeps in I’m going to have to switch from my morning smoothie to something a little less hypothermia inducing. So it was on this particular trip I headed straight to the cereal isle hoping to find myself a nice muesli or granola with no added sugars, fairly unrefined, healthy and without a ridiculous amount of calories per serve. I embarked on my mission, studying the nutritional value on the back of my options – it turned out I was right. As I predicted these specifications were asking a bit too much from the old Coles/Woolies. As I tried to balance my handbag and several breakfast options I ended up having to crouch on the grocery shop floor so I could scrutinise each box intently (this earn’t me a few odd looks from fellow shoppers).
I picked up a box of muesli noticing it had little stars on the front – a rating panel. I had a flashback to seeing similar stars plastered on the front of washing machines as my mother dragged my pre-teen self through numerous white goods stores. These perky little stars aren’t new and I’ve seen the food star rating before. I’ve just never really taken much notice as they come on items I don’t normally buy. It was only now I noticed they seemed to be taking over the front of a lot more products. More brands have joined the rating system which means not only the addition of the stars – but new, shiny, attention grabbing packaging.
I became excited to see the muesli I had in my hand boasted a 4.5 star rating. Impressive! It was exactly what I wanted so I flipped to the back to check out the nutrition panel. One of the first three ingredients was… sugar. Bad sign. As I read further I realised the cereal wasn’t remotely healthy, and for a muesli without dried fruit (the usual culprit behind a muesli’s high sugar count) it was really high in sugar.
From my crouched position I peered up at the cereals. The ‘Up and Go’ poppers caught my eye.
Come on that can’t be right I thought. ‘Up and Go’ is convenient yes, but healthy? God no.
One popper contains over 4 1/2 teaspoons of sugar. The strawberry flavour doesn’t mean the sugar is the healthy fruit kind either. It’s pure sugar.
Completely discouraged and feeling tricked I put the box back.
Muesli-less I headed home.
It annoys me when I go out to a cafe that claims to have ‘healthy salads’ only to see the dish is jammed packed with too much oil, sugar filled dressings, bad fats and has more calories than the big beef burger next to it on the menu. It’s the same annoyance I feel when I see products in the health food section that have more sugar than a candy bar (case in point below).
I’m no nutritionist (an interested amateur and research fanatic, yes). I don’t advocate for any one diet whether it be paleo/clean eating/vegan/Atkins or whatever the latest fad. I’m a firm believer that everybody, and every body is different. What’s healthy for some is not healthy for others. You just have to find your niche, and take bits out of each “diet” to create your own healthy “lifestyle”.
Anyway, a few days passed and I found myself still dwelling on the The Health Star Rating and more specifically feeling sorry for those making a conscious effort to be healthy but unbeknownst to them being anything but.
So I jumped on my laptop and did a little research.
The government led initiative was introduced to Australia and New Zealand store’s about three years ago. The Health Star Rating (HSR) is a rating scale from ½ to 5 stars. The more stars the healthier the choice. At face value this seems great. It’s simple. Easy. A black and white concept right? But the problem is it’s not.
The system rates certain food products based on their nutritional value in compliance with the Australian Dietary Guidelines (Sanitarium 2014). A products rating is determined by its: energy (calories), saturated fats, sugars and sodiums – the bad stuff (which can cause chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity) in comparison with its good values like its fruit, vegetable and protein content.
The HSR Guide which was last updated February this year states the systems purpose is to:
“provide convenient, relevant and readily understood nutrition information and/or guidance on food packs to assist consumers to make informed food purchases and healthier eating choices.”
I like the concept. Not all products are rated though and by 2016 brands like Milo, Kit-Kat, Uncle Toby’s, Edgell and Lean Cusine will join Coles and Woolworths private labels as well as Kellogg’s and Sanitarium (among others) in displaying a HSR panel. So then I started thinking maybe I am picking this apart and over analysing a useful method. After all the Health Star Rating website does state (but not really emphasise) the panel should be used to compare the nutritional value of similar foods and the more stars, the healthier the choice. A 4 1/2 rating doesn’t claim healthiness, just healthier. But healthier compared to what? It’s not like Coco Pops are hard to beat. The cereal has the nutritional value of an old shoe.
I’m still not buying it. Both literally and metaphorically.
You choose a product because of its 4 1/2 star over the one on its left with 3 stars. But what about the product to the right which isn’t rated on the HSR system? – the one that is actually healthier than the lot.
In a article published in April, The Sydney Morning Herald pointed out the Woolworths Select Straight Cut Potato chips had a 5 star rating (?!) and their fresh Pink Lady apples a 4 1/2.
Three years on, after the ads and campaigns are out of sight out of mind, there’s no reminder on the ‘similar to’ rule or the merely ‘healthier’ claim. The stars now just scream ‘healthy’.
Customers purchase these rated items because they think they’re making a healthy choice. They want to be healthier. This is so great, but their good intensions are more than likely going to waste. We are so quick to jump on anything labelled healthy, fat free, low carb, gluten free that we don’t really stop to think past it. We can’t take the word ‘healthy’ at face value anymore.
The 4 1/2 star muesli had captured my attention and drawn me in. If had I been in a rush I might’ve just purchased it based on that symbol alone.
It’s misguiding and misleading.
In this situation there is a difference between “health” and “healthy”.
So if your immediate reaction in the grocery store is “yes, 4 stars it’s good for me” – you would more than likely be incorrect. Yes it’s okay in moderation, but if you’re consuming it like it is a healthy option, you may be eating it several times a day rather than the several-times-a-week-type moderation food it actually is.
Twenty-six (about 70%) of Kellogg’s products having a rating between four and five health stars. At the end of the day if you follow the HSR you are going to end up with a trolley full of processed products.
Something just doesn’t quite add up. Either that or there are some serious issues with our Australian Dietary Guidelines to which the rating is governed.
So what are your thoughts on the Health Star Rating System?