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Mandatory Health Star Ratings - a quick way to select foods when shopping

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Wendy Watson

Mandatory Health Star Ratings - a quick way to select foods when shopping

Have you seen the Health Star Rating on packages in the supermarket? It’s likely that you have seen it on some products but noticed that it’s not there on every product. The Health Star Rating is not widely used on all products or within all product categories and consequently you’ve probably found it difficult to rely on it when you’re shopping.

A Health Star Rating provides a simple nutrition assessment that can be used to compare similar products to help select the healthier one. Foods and drinks receive a star rating -- between a half a star and five stars -- calculated using much of the information that is in more detail on the Nutrition Information Panel on the back of the pack.

If the Health Star Rating was on all products, it would be quick and easy to compare products within a food category at the supermarket (e.g., breakfast cereals, crackers etc) and select the healthier option. There is currently no requirement for companies to use it or even for one company to consistently use it on all their products. That makes it difficult to compare products in the way the system was intended. It also means it’s not a level playing field as one company may put it on all their products while another might only display it on products that score well and leave it off the less healthy ones.

Cancer Council wants the Health Star Rating to be mandatory so that it can be used to its maximum potential and help Australians to make healthier options. The more often shoppers see the rating, the more familiar they will be with it, and the more likely they will be to use it to guide their purchases. When used on a broad range of products, symbols like the Health Star Rating also influence the overall healthiness of the food supply as food companies improve the nutritional quality of their products to increase the ratings they receive. A Health Star Rating on all packaged foods would likely deliver healthier Australians.

Of course, when we are talking about cancer prevention we ought to be filling our shopping trollies with foods that may not come in a package or carry a Health Star Rating. All Australians need to be eating more single ingredient, fresh products such as vegetables, lentils, beans, fruit, nuts, seeds, and wholegrains. These are the foods that should make up a large part of what we eat. However only 7% of Australians eat the recommended serves of vegetables and one-third (35%) of the total energy in our diet is from 'discretionary foods'  of little nutritional value and often high in saturated fats, sugars, and salt. And that’s the other area where Cancer Council is calling for government to help.

Too much of Australians’ diets come from fast and highly processed foods that lack the goodness we need to nourish our bodies and protect us from many diseases, including cancer. Besides all the nutrients we miss when we eat a lot of highly processed foods, they can contribute to weight gain over the years. Being above a healthy weight affects our health, putting us at increased risk of many diseases including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and 13 types of cancer. Cancer Council wants the government to fund a public awareness campaign to help us all understand what and how much to eat for best health.

That’s why high on our list of things we think the government can do to help us reduce our risk of cancer is to provide good information through education campaigns to help Australians choose foods to reduce their cancer risk. And secondly, when we need to buy packaged foods, Cancer Council wants Australians to have the best information they can—and that means a Health Star Rating on all packaged food and drinks in the supermarket.