The Health Star Rating system. So…yesterday?

“The more stars the healthier” boasts the promotional slogan. Many people weren’t buying it and Australia’s Health Star Rating system was placed under review.

Greenwashing processed foods?

Trying to make processed and packaged foods appear healthy is undoubtedly a difficult task. Especially if your products are largely comprised of refined grains such as wheat, corn or rice and sugar. It’s understandable if manufacturers wouldn’t want ‘added sugars’ to be part of the algorithm used to calculate the number of Stars given.

Inexcusable, but understandable. They have analysts and shareholders to answer to.

Will a review help?

It remains to be seen whether the review will put an end to the ‘added sugar problem’ and whether consumers will start to take the Health Star Rating system seriously.

The question I’m asking at this point though is “Is the Health Star Rating system so…yesterday?”

Would a new system be better?

Is time, effort and taxpayer money being wasted developing a system that appears to hold little interest for consumers and that is routinely marred by controversy? Is there a better way?

I spent quite a bit of time reading about labelling when I was writing Eating Ourselves Sick and it became apparent even then, that consumers were looking for honesty and transparency in terms of the information they would like to see on product packaging.

Honesty and transparency rank highly on the consumer radar

The concept of ‘clean labelling’ is gaining momentum around the world as consumers become increasingly concerned about ingredients. A clean label means a simplified label, with fewer ingredients, nothing artificial and transparency to consumers,” said Steven Steinborn, Partner at the global legal firm, Hogan Lovells in his 2016 Clean Label Conference speech in Illinois.

Trust also matters

While consumers may increasingly value simple labels and fewer ingredients, it could be argued that in an era where consumer trust in brands is diminishing, transparency may turn out to be a competitive advantage for brands that can leverage this strategic asset.  Smaller manufacturers seem to be leading the way.

Is there another way?

Recently I purchased a bottled almond drink that featured seven icons on its label – they were a mix of nutrition, values, clean and religious preferences and they included: Vegan, BPA free, Gluten Free, Kosher, Non-GMO, Carrageenan Free, Direct Trade. It also featured the normal ingredients panel and nutrition information. It was straightforward, easy to read and provided relevant information, and I couldn’t help but wonder if icons for Teaspoons of Sugar, Grams of Carb or Organic might make it on to the labels of more forward-thinking food manufacturers.

As consumers and public health advocates continue to push for healthier food options and increased product transparency perhaps the all-important ‘profit and growth’ will be awarded to those food businesses that spend less time trying to mislead consumers and more time creating the healthier food supply we so desperately need.