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Food choices

Films, hotels now food. Can this system really get you making good choices?

What do films, hotels, appliances and now food all have in common? They have a star rating system designed to help us make better choices. And while sitting through a mediocre film does little more than waste our time, the star rating system on packaged foods has promised better health. But can a simple label on packaged food be the answer to rising obesity?

The recently introduced system has got its detractors. For starters, how does a system rating healthiness give a better score to hot chips than greek yogurt? We'll get to that shortly.  And how can we make best use of the labels despite their limitations?

Why we need to get healthier

We're getting fatter. 2 in 3 adult Australians are overweight or obese (63%). 10% more adults are overweight or obese now than in 1995. Experts blame the food choices we make as well as reduced physical activity. The new Health Star Rating System is promised to help us make healthier food choices.

Health Star Rating System explained

The packaged food industry has started introducing a star rating system that make it easier to choose healthier packaged food. It is based on the same idea as the energy rating system we use for appliances. That system has made it easier to buy more energy efficient appliances when we know what appliance we're after. This system should be used in the same way - as a guide when comparing between brands for the same type of food, like cereal.

How it works

The star ratings are between 1/2 star to 5 stars. The higher the star value (closer to 5), the "healthier" the packaged food is for you. You won't see the star system on fresh food, or salt, pepper or coffee. The star ratings uses 100g of 100ml or the whole package if it's usually eaten in one go, to do the calculations. The serving size of foods is an important consideration because there are some foods you eat bigger portions of.

Downside of the system

Many health experts are disappointed in the system that has been adopted. They say there have been too many compromises made to get the food manufacturers on board. A system preferred by health and consumer groups is a traffic-light system using red, yellow and green to indicate nutritional value. Here is an example of what the experts wanted.

Food rating system - traffic light model

However the traffic light approach was rejected by the food industry so we have the health star rating system instead. You can see the difference in the example below. This is what the labels look like currently on 1000 packaged food items.

Food rating system - stars model

How do hot chips get more stars than a Greek yoghurt?

The system look at 3 components of food - saturated fat, sodium and total sugars. Hot chips are usually cooked in unsaturated fats and are low in sugar.   Some Greek-style natural yoghurts, are quite high in saturated fats. So you have some Greek-style yogurts with 1.5 stars and some hot chips with 4 stars.

Is the system broken?

Determining the "healthiness' of food is really difficult. More difficult than calculating the energy efficiency of appliances because they don't have as many factors to consider.

There are a lot of people making a living from selling packaged food. They want to ensure their products are portrayed in the best light, to sell more. And it's very difficult to make sure everyone is happy with the system that is implemented. Some compromises were made to have the voluntary system implemented.

The system is still in development and voluntary. If you're not happy with how products are being promoted through the labels, write to the food manufactures. Better still talk to friends and family to inspire them to make healthy choices and switch brands.

Key tips to remember

    • Fresh is still healthiest
    • Use the Health Rating Star System as a guide only. The nutrition label on the back still has lots of valuable information about serving size and daily intake percentages.
    • System is still in development and voluntary.
    • Start conversations about the new rating system with friends and family to share knowledge.

So what are your thought on the Health Star Rating System? Do you understanding it and will it help you make better choices? Add you comments in the section below.