The Health Star Rating System was designed to try to meet this demand. It was developed by the Australian, state and territory governments along with a number of nutrition and public health experts and in consultation with Food Standards Australia New Zealand.
It works pretty well in many food product categories, but not all as we shall see, and unfortunately, it won’t guide you to the best, healthiest oil.
What is the Health Star Rating System?
Essentially it is a system that assesses a food product and gives it a number of stars from 1 to 5. There is an online calculator for food companies to use to calculate their stars and a relatively simple algorithm runs behind the scenes to make the calculation. The factors taken into account are:
- The energy (kilojoules) in the product
- The levels of what are termed ‘risk nutrients’. These are saturated fat, sodium (salt) and sugars. These are nutrients that may be harmful if consumed in excess.
- The levels of what are termed ‘positive nutrients’. Extra points are scored for the proportion of fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes present, while depending on the food category points may also be scored for fibre and for protein.
On first glance this all seems fabulous. Products with less saturated fat, salt and sugar, and/or more veggies, fruit, nuts and legumes will have more stars. Easy. Unfortunately, food is far more complicated than this.
Does it work?
The system does work well in many food product categories, if it is used in the way it is intended. That is, you use it within the same product category for comparison. For example, you compare one breakfast cereal with another. The stars will guide you to one with more fibre and less salt and sugar. That’s a pretty good start in making a healthier choice.
But you can’t compare a breakfast cereal with a packaged snack. More stars on the packaged snack does not mean it is necessarily healthier than a breakfast cereal with fewer stars. The stars are applicable for each category of food and you can’t compare across groups.
"The stars are applicable for each category of food and you can’t compare across groups."
But turn to the cooking oils aisle and suddenly things are not quite so straight forward. You’ll find that canola oil scores more stars than extra virgin olive oil. If you compare the fat profiles of both of these oils you’ll see that both are high in monounsaturated fat and low in saturated fat. The canola oil scores slightly more stars because it’s saturated fat content is slightly lower. But both oils are low in saturated fat to start with, so it really is splitting hairs.
What is not taken into account however is that the extra virgin olive oil delivers a powerful package of beneficial phytonutrients including polyphenols, other antioxidants and squalene. It is literally the squeezed juice of the olive fruit and does not undergo any refining. The algorithm does not allow for these factors to contribute points.
"What is not taken into account however is that the extra virgin olive oil delivers a powerful package of beneficial phytonutrients including polyphenols, other antioxidants and squalene.
It is literally the squeezed juice of the olive fruit and does not undergo any refining. The algorithm does not allow for these factors to contribute points."
In contrast canola oil is a refined oil, where high heat, pressure and/or chemicals are used to extract the oil from the seeds. It contains virtually no phytochemicals and as with all refined oils, there are potentially harmful by-products producing during the extraction and refining process, including small levels of trans fats (the worst kind for health). These factors are not addressed by the system.
I, along with others, have submitted an official application to the Health Star Rating committee to have this addressed. However, the response has simply been that these nutritional considerations are out of the defined scope of the Health Star Rating System. That is not just disappointing, but misleads consumers.
There are other anomalies.
For example, honey and maple syrup receive only one star, deeming them pretty unhealthy in the eyes of the consumer. Yet these are both natural, minimally processed sugars with several proven health benefits when used in appropriate amounts as part of a healthy diet.
A full fat Greek yoghurt with absolutely nothing added scores fewer stars than an artificially sweetened, fat-free yoghurt with added thickeners and other additives. I’m willing to bet you would enjoy the full fat Greek yoghurt more and subsequently eat less of other less healthy foods.
"A full fat Greek yoghurt with absolutely nothing added scores fewer stars than an artificially sweetened, fat-free yoghurt with added thickeners and other additives."
Does this mean the Health Star Rating System is no good?
Not at all. It just means it is an imperfect system. Food and nutrition are complex and it is impossible to have an algorithm that takes into account every single aspect of importance.
"Food and nutrition are complex and it is impossible to have an algorithm that takes into account every single aspect of importance."
If you understand roughly how it appraises foods and know where it does not work so well (or not at all well), then you can make best use of it. Think of it as another tool in your toolkit to help you make healthier choices more easily.
What to remember is that this is a system set up to help you to make healthier choices of packaged foods. It does not work well for single ingredient items such as cooking oil as key nutritional aspects are not accounted for.
"This is a system set up to help you to make healthier choices of packaged foods. It does not work well for single ingredient items such as cooking oil as key nutritional aspects are not accounted for."
Fill most of your supermarket trolley with fresh, whole foods and use the Health Stars to help you make healthier choices of any packaged foods such as breakfast cereals and snacks. And ignore it when it comes to cooking oils and the other anomalies!
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