After learning that a bottle of water was recently given a 2-star health rating, supermarket shoppers have been rattled: if the star rating system doesn’t work, who can we trust? Grant Schofield, a professor of Public Health at AUT, has called the Health Star Rating system fake news. “We’ve got a health star rating system that is worse than useless, and does actual harm to people in New Zealand,” said Schofield.
A 2017 study called Starlight, conducted by Dietary Interventions; Evidence and Transmission, found the majority of consumers use star ratings for snack foods, bakery items, cereals, and oils. Consumers in the study checked around one-fifth of products for the stars, meaning some products concerned them more than others.
The labels they didn’t check were whole foods: things like sugar, honey, eggs, fish, fruit and vegetables, and meat. The star rating system isn’t meant for these – we have a good idea of how to judge the health benefits of those ourselves. The system was designed for packaged foods, so with most people using it check on cereals and snacks, it’s working nicely.
Chief executive of the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council Katherine Rich suggested a reason for the water bottle’s low rating: “It’s true that some sodas score lower, but that’s probably because of the sodium and the fact the products offer no other nutrients,” she said. She went on to explain that early in the development of the Health Star Rating system a policy decision was made by governments, nutritionists, and industry experts to award plain water five stars automatically. This can be seen by visiting any supermarket.
SodaStream used the health star rating calculator instead of submitting water to the advisory panel, which of course led to a lower ranking. Rich called the brand’s move a facepalm moment. “Of course it doesn’t work for plain water because there is nothing to rank,” said Rich. “It’s plain water. It’s fundamental to life, but it contains no nutrients ranked by the algorithm.”
Another controversial rating is Milo’s, which achieved a 4.5 HSR on the basis that it would always be prepared with low-fat milk.
3,900 products currently display a star rating as the system is voluntary. A quick scan of supermarket shelves will show you that those with nothing to gain from the system are unlikely to opt into it: more than 22 percent of breakfast products bear the rating stars, and less than two percent of sugar/honey products do so.