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A closer look at Government health star ratings

There may have been recent changes, but the Government’s Health Star Rating system is still not sufficiently considering oral health and overall health. Check out this interesting piece from leading public health nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton, visiting fellow at the School of Medical Sciences, UNSW, courtesy of Australian Doctor. Read the views of ADA NSW President Dr Kathleen Matthews on this issue.

Fruit juice, sugar and the falling health stars of a Big Food industry

Read the AusDoc article

Fruit juice is big business.

The industry in Australia contributes more than $900 million to the economy and provides more than 5000 jobs.

So, it’s not surprising that citrus growers joined the Australian Beverages Council in their opposition against a decision to cut the health stars awarded to fruit juices.

The algorithm that generates health stars - currently listed on 10,300 packaged goods found on supermarket shelves - had awarded all fruit juices the maximum five stars. The award was automatic.

Anyone aware of the sugar content of these products would be alarmed.

But the rating was important — at least as an exercise in marketing — because it generated for these products their health halo.

That will change now.

The Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation says it will limit these products to a maximum four stars, although many will now fall below that, possibly as low as two stars.

The industry’s angst has only been heightened by the fact that this means a number of its products will actually get a lower health star rating than diet soft drinks.

But doctors and dietitians have been calling for changes to the star rating algorithm for a long time.

Many cite the absurdity of some juices getting more stars under its computations than the fruits from which they are made.

Yes, orange juice is a good source of vitamin C, folate and potassium, but there remains widespread ignorance about the actual sugar content of fruit juice, ignorance that the rating systems doesn’t help to enlighten.

But just over half of the average Australian’s 'free' sugar intake comes from soft drinks, sports and energy drinks, juices and juice drinks.

WHO defines the sugars in fruit juice as ‘free’ sugars in that they are stripped from their original source, just as regular sugar is stripped from sugar cane. 

And it’s these ‘free sugars’ that are linked with various health problems including dental decay, obesity and obesity’s many associated health harms.

Yes, it’s aimed especially at reducing ‘nasties’ — sugar, salt, saturated fat and kilojoules — in packaged products.

However, the algorithm allows the negative points for these components to be offset by positive points from fruit, vegetables, nuts or legumes.

Dietary fibre and protein content can also offset negative scores. But the system still ignores questions about how nutritious a food is, its additives and the degree of processing involved.

And there is no credit for vitamins or minerals.

The downgrading of juices is long overdue.

But the battle with the Federal Government’s health start rating system, which is now entering its seventh year, continues.

It still embraces absurdity, not least in the way it still confers health stars for diet soft drinks.

The wider public may not know but there is nothing healthy about these ultra-processed products that have no nutrients and maintain a liking for sweet-tasting liquids.

The rating system may help to improve consumer choices and it may encourage companies to reduce the sugar, salt and saturated fat in their products. That is a good thing.

But the fact remains the healthiest diets will always be made up of fresh and minimally processed foods.

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