Nicole Moore (Master Nutr. APD)

What’s wrong with Australia’s Health Star Rating system?

5 mins read

You know the Australian Health Star Rating System, right?

It’s the front-of-pack labelling system that supposedly tells us how healthy (or not) packaged food is. It rates the overall nutritional profile and assigns it a rating, from ½ a star (poor dietary value) to 5 stars (high nutritional value). It technically is meant to provide a simple, standardised way to compare the healthiness of similar packaged foods.

The more stars, the healthier the choice, right? Wrong!!

You know something is flawed when an “Up and Go” breakfast milk drink with 28.7 grams of carbs, 15.8 grams of added sugar and ingredients such as “cane sugar, vegetable fibre, soy protein, vegetable oils (sunflower, canola), and fructose”, has a star rating of 4.5 out of 5!

Yet smoked salmon, which is high in healthy omega 3 fats and protein with zero carbs or sugar, and just two ingredients (salmon and salt if you’re interested), has a star rating of 2!

I do not think salmon is a high-risk food, but I would not give my kids a milk carton full of vegetable oils, fructose and cane sugars.

How does the Australian Health Star Rating System work?

To understand the flaws, let’s first understand how the star rating system is calculated.

The rating evaluates a product’s energy value and saturated fat, sugar, salt, fruit, vegetables, protein and fibre content. Thus, you lose points for too much energy, saturated fat, sugar, and salt and gain points for fruit and vegetable content, protein and fibre. The Australian Star Rating System (AHSRS) generates a star rating number based on assessing a product’s nutritional value.

It’s important to note that the AHSRS is entirely voluntary, and food manufacturers do not have to carry the food star rating on their products.

So why does healthy food get a low rating? 

Healthy food like smoked salmon has higher total fat and thus calories (energy). However, there is now substantial evidence to suggest that saturated fat isn’t as problematic as once was thought.  And so foods high in saturated fat, like salmon, still get a poor health rating of just 2 stars under the flawed AHSRS. Yet, it’s an excellent source of protein and healthy polyunsaturated omega-3 fats, which assist with reducing the risk of heart disease and keep blood sugar stable for hours.

The problem is that the AHRSR doesn’t consider that it’s not so much the total calories that matter but the type of calories. So, for example, 200g of smoked salmon calories does not have the same effect as 200g of table sugar calories. This is because sugar leads to high blood glucose and worsens insulin resistance. Yet sugar has fewer calories per gram than fat, so Up and Go fairs better on the Health Star rating system. It is low in fat and has fewer calories.

How the Australian Health Star Rating affects our choices

Now that we know why the AHSRS is flawed, what other product’s star ratings should we look out for?

1. Margarine and seed oils 

Butter gets a poor score of 0.5/5 because it’s high in saturated fat, but we now know that health advice on saturated fat does not paint a full picture. Meanwhile, a couple of stops along the supermarket shelf, inflammatory chemical tubs of margarine get a high score of 4.5 stars and more.

Yet the evidence shows that linoleic acid and omega-6 polyunsaturated fat, found in the vegetable oils that make margarine, promote oxidative stress, oxidised LDL cholesterol, chronic low-grade inflammation and atherosclerosis. If you think that sounds bad, that’s because it is. Vegetable oils, also known as seed oils, have been linked to heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and autoimmune disease.

Guidelines about saturated fat are under review. However, the Journal of American Cardiology says, “Low carbohydrate diets high in saturated fat, which are popular for managing body weight, may also improve metabolic disease endpoints in some individuals”.

So why do healthy fat products like butter get such a low star rating?

2. Flavoured milk

A strawberry low-fat-flavoured milk gets a health star rating of 5/5 because it is low in saturated fat and calories. But it can have up to 27 grams – 6 teaspoons! – of added sugar, not to mention all the other nasties. It’s worth noting that the World Health Organisation recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily

3. Fruit yoghurts

A tub of Coles Greek yoghurt gets a health star rating of just 1.5/5 because it’s a full-fat yoghurt containing saturated fat. But it doesn’t contain fruit purée (what I like to call sugar purée) like many fruit-flavoured yoghurts. So I do not think the Greek yoghurt will cause us health problems, do you?

4. Breakfast cereals

Where do I start?! Because they are high in fibre or boosted with protein, many breakfast cereals get a high health star rating of 4 or 5/5, masking the fact they contain high amounts of added sugars. For example, supposedly ‘healthy’ Sultana Bran with Oat Clusters has 13g of added sugar (3 teaspoons). Yet its star rating is 4/5.  And here are 10 other ‘healthy’ brekkie cereals you should avoid. Needless to say, I’ll stick to Defeat Diabetes Scrambled Eggs with Salmon and Avocado or our Raspberry Chia Pots, thanks!

5 things to consider when using the Australian Health Star Rating System

Here’s our quick guide to what to look out for when considering the star ratings on products:

  1. If a product is high in total fat, like salmon, even though it’s good fat, it will be high in energy (calories) and so technically could get a low heath star rating.
  2. If a product contains saturated fat, which we now know is demonised unfairly, it will also get a low star rating.
  3. Inflammatory seed oils (vegetable oils) get a good high star score because they are not high in saturated fat. But we know better than to eat them!
  4. Foods may have lots of added sugar, yet they will rate well if they are low in saturated fat.
  5. A product may falsely lose points for being too high in healthy saturated fat and energy.
  6. A product may not lose points for being high in sugar if it is low in fat and low in energy.
  7. A product can gain points for containing added fruit juices because it is “fruit” despite being high in added sugar.
  8. A product may gain points for added fibre or protein despite being high in sugar.

The AHSRS is not rating foods fairly or in line with the latest nutritional science.

Should I trust the Australian Health Star Rating System?

To be fair, the AHSRS sometimes gets it right. For example, a no-added-sugar fruit juice with no fibre and high in natural fructose scores a star rating of 2, while nuts get a star rating of 4-5/5. So it does work sometimes.

But overwhelmingly, the system is flawed and confuses consumers instead of helping them make healthy food choices as it was intended.

My advice is to JERF: just eat real foods. Look for good fats (like olive oil and butter), high protein, low carb food with real ingredients you can recognise, and give processed food aisles the swerve if you can.

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