First published in NZ Winegrower, August - September 2014 edition.
On 27 June 2014 the Minister for Food Safety announced that the Government would be joining with Australia in introducing a voluntary labelling system to show the nutritional value of food products. New Zealand and Australia will both operate under the Health Star Rating Scheme (HSR Scheme), which will rank products based on overall nutritional value. The HSR Scheme will be able to be used for most packaged food products available for retail sale. Alcohol is explicitly excluded from the scheme, which means that the Health Stars cannot be displayed on products such as wine, beer or spirits (regardless of the potential health benefits of an occasional glass of red wine).
The HSR Scheme is designed to allow customers to make better informed and healthier choices, by making the nutritional value of products more obvious to consumers at the point of sale. Nutrition labels can be confusing, and terms such as ‘low fat’ or ‘high fibre’ can sometimes hide the fact that products are less healthy in other ways. Under the new system, shoppers will be able to quickly get an accurate and comprehensive idea of the nutritional value of a product by looking at the front of the packaging.
The HSR Scheme will use a rating scale of ½ to 5 stars. The more stars a food is allocated, the higher the nutritional value of that food. In addition to the stars, the voluntary label will show the amount of energy, saturated fat, sugar, sodium and one optional positive nutrient (for example fibre or calcium) in 100g or 100ml of the product. The amount of stars a product will have will be determined by the levels of these nutrients and can be calculated using an algorithm that is available at foodsafety.govt.nz. By way of example, most soft drinks are likely to be rated as 0.5 – 1 star, most breakfast cereals will be around 2.5 stars, and trim milk and unsweetened yoghurt are likely to be 5 stars.
Most health experts appear to be in favour of the HSR Scheme, noting that it is simple but more comprehensive than the ‘traffic light’ labelling that was also considered. The advantage of the HSR Scheme over the traffic light system that is used in Britain is that it allows the nutritional value of the product to be assessed as a whole, rather than evaluating and displaying the results for certain nutrients individually. The traffic light system in Britain is also focussed only on the negative aspects of food, and not on the presence of both positive and negative nutrients as required by New Zealand dietary guidelines.
Major players in the industry also appear to approve of the scheme, with Woolworths and Sanitarium both announcing that they will apply the new labels to all of their products. The Food and Grocery Council has stated that it is confident that a significant number of manufacturers would also sign up. The labelling scheme is likely to be embraced by manufacturers which are already producing relatively healthy foods, for obvious reasons.
There are of course drawbacks to the proposed labelling system. One is that the scheme is voluntary, meaning that products that have a low nutritional value are less likely to adopt this labelling. Nutrition is also complex and there is regular debate about what kinds of food are best for people to be consuming. The HSR Scheme needs to be simple to be effective, but there is a risk that the HSR Scheme oversimplifies the nutritional assessment. Products that are highly processed for example may fare better than products which are closer to being natural (for example low fat flavoured milk is likely to have more stars than regular whole milk). Additionally, as was pointed out by the Food and Grocery Council, the fact that the nutritional content of products is measured per 100g may cause anomalies for some products. Vegemite and Marmite are likely to both receive a reduced number of stars as they are high in sodium. A consumer would however use far less than 100g of these spreads per serving, which means that nutritionally the picture is not as negative as it would appear.
It is likely that we will start seeing these new labels on products on the shelf in the next 6-12 months, and an education period will be required for both the industry and consumers to allow them to understand the labels. The effectiveness of the calculator and the style guide will be reviewed in two years, and a review in five years will evaluate the system as a whole, including the level of voluntary uptake. If there is not ‘consistent and widespread’ uptake of the system, it is possible that this labelling scheme may be made compulsory.