Wendyl Nissen

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Wendyl Nissen: Healthy food star system a good start

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The Health Star calculator can only tell you if the food is low in fat and sugar, but is unable to determine if the food is packed with artificial additives. Photo / Getty Images
The Health Star calculator can only tell you if the food is low in fat and sugar, but is unable to determine if the food is packed with artificial additives. Photo / Getty Images

Next time you are in the supermarket take a look around you and see what other people are doing. Some people will be throwing food in their trolleys barely giving it a glance, others will be trying to qualify for their good consumer badges by carefully studying the information on the labels. They're the ones with the magnifying glasses.

The type on the labels is always small and illegible, serving size details are misleading - such as giving nutrition information for a 250ml serving when the bottle of drink is 350ml - and then there is remembering how much is too much sugar, sodium, fat and kilojoules and which food code represents MSG.

Which is why not many people bother. Meanwhile, food producers continue to churn out products which have disturbingly high and unhealthy levels of fat, sugar, sodium and kilojoules, safe in the knowledge that the consumer will simply buy their product if it is promoted well, has a great package and tastes good.

Anything tastes good with loads of fat, sugar and sodium in it.

With the introduction of the new Health Star food ratings system people will have a much better chance of ensuring that the food which ends up in their homes is the best they can buy. It goes some way to making producers accountable for what they sell us.

Being able to simply glance at a star rating to see how healthy a food product is in terms of how much fat, sodium, sugar and energy is in it, and a higher rating for vegetables, fruit and dietary fibre and protein will make a huge difference to busy shoppers.

But the system has a long way to go. People who prefer real food will not be given guidance on how many additives, such as artificial colours, flavourings, preservatives and sweeteners are in the product. These are not considered in the Health Star calculator, so while the food might be low in fat and sugar it could be packed with artificial additives which may cause health issues in some people.

The system also does little to educate buyers about what makes good food. Simply choosing a 4-star product doesn't mean you are making informed healthy food choices, you are leaving that decision up to the ratings calculator.

The labelling is also voluntary, which is a major failing, in my opinion. Bad food producers will ignore it and ramp up their promotional efforts. The reason it's not mandatory is apparently because of the expense for the food producer of relabelling. That's absurd.

As Sanitarium has said, they will simply introduce the system when they need to print new labels and packaging, which every business does from time to time. Some graphic artists might make a few bucks fitting the star system on to the label, but that's hardly going to break a food producer's budget.

But a flawed system is better that none. Ultimately consumers are responsible for what goes in the supermarket trolley. And I hope foods not displaying the star system will be left on the shelf.

- NZ Herald

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