When looking for advice on what is good to eat and drink (or not so good), we often look to the labels on our food and beverages.
What can be difficult to discern is whether health claims slathered over the packaging are trustworthy.
Fortunately, in Australia and New Zealand, to make a claim for any health effects, the manufacturer must abide by strict labeling laws laid out by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.1 This ensures the food-health benefit is substantiated – and there are 200 general and 13 high-level health claims to choose from.1
A manufacturer can choose to apply for a new food-related health claim, of self-substantiate a food-health relationship that further supports an established, general claim. You can check out the list of notified food-health relationships here.
Another way we seek advice around the quality of food we are eating is to look for logos of nutrition endorsement programs.
Logos and labels
A recent survey found the nutrition information panels on the back of a package are less effective in informing people of health-related qualities of the food than high interest claims on the front.2
So the labeling claims and endorsement programs need be really well considered, as these heavily dictate our food purchases!
Here are a few nutritional endorsement schemes you may recognise:
Heart Foundation Tick
Recently retired, this voluntary nutrition endorsement program had focused heavily on salt and trans-fat content of a product. Originally (and surprisingly), sugar levels in the products weren’t considered worth worrying about!
The Heart Foundation only recently recognised added sugar’s role in health and disease – a welcome acknowledgement that is a reflection of the ever-changing world of health and nutrition.
Crossed Grain Logo
The Coeliac Australia Endorsement Logo is called the Crossed Grain and is the validation of products being gluten free and meeting to the Australian standard of gluten free. It is interesting to note that while food products may not use the name of a disease or physiological condition in their labelling, the endorsements were granted freedom to do this formally in 2013 by FSANZ.
The Glycaemic Index Foundation is supported by the University of Sydney and Diabetes NSW. To obtain the logo, products must be low GI, and meet strict criteria around energy, sodium, and saturated fat content.
Whilst this can certainly help identify what packaged goods are going to have minimal impact on blood glucose levels, it also pays to address the ingredients list to ensure you aren’t buying a food rammed with additives. And try to select foods that aren’t heavily processed.
Health Star Rating
The Health Star Rating (HSR) is becoming the mack-daddy of voluntary, front-of-pack labeling schemes seen in Australian supermarkets.
It is a voluntary scheme ranking the nutrition value of food products, allowing comparisons to be made between products in the same category. Created by the Australian federal government in collaboration with a selection of mainstream food industries it aims to identify risk nutrients (ie energy value, saturated fat, sugar and salt content) versus positive nutrients (ie fruit, vegetable, protein and fibre content) on packaged products. Based on these calculations, a star rating between ½ and 5 stars is allocated.
“The HSR came out of the Dietary Intake thumbnails, which developed into the traffic light system, each failing to be user friendly or practical to the everyday user,” says accredited practicing dietician Annabel Mackenzie. “It is a government initiative toward curbing obesity and promoting healthier lifestyles, by providing consumers the power to make sensible food choices – however this program has been faced with a few obstacles due to the algorithm used to calculate the stars.”
The theory is the more stars the better the product is for you.3 Yet this is not always the case.
The algorithm does not separate products like olive oil and your good, monounsaturated fats (those common to the Mediterranean diet) from a highly and chemically processed oil or margarine – yet they have completely different effects on health.
The system has also been played in large food manufacturer’s favour, with no penalty for high sugar content, leading to confusion around healthiness of the product and amount of added sugar.
For example, Milo is calculated to have 4.5 stars when served with milk, yet it dishes up about 20g of added sugar per serve – a whopping 5 teaspoons!
Yet we are lead to believe that we are making a good choice, not maxing out our daily added sugar upper limit! But don’t worry – we here at That Sugar are working on something to try help you easily identify how much added sugar is in your food or drink.
It is good to remember with the HSR that you cannot compare the ratings of a product with those from a completely different food-category, nor with fresh produce. And it fails to address how ‘natural’ the product is and does not account for food additives or degree of processing. Margarine, a heavily processed food high in additives may rate higher than butter, which can contain one or two ingredients and is generally far less processed.
While the HSR and other logos have some good intentions, perhaps we should focus our food purchasing energy away from so many packaged foods, and (at least a majority of the time) just eat real food. #jerf
Watch this space
Whilst we will always encourage consuming mostly real, whole food, we must still consider the health value of our packaged products.
As a consumer, we want the choice to be easy, and get in and out of the supermarket as quickly as possible (to, you know, get on with life!). Clear and simple logos and label claims are required to help inform us whether we are making a better choice.
And when it comes to added sugar content, we are working hard to make this easier for you to identify in the future. So, watch this space!
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)
- FSANZ 2016, Nutrition, health and related claims, viewed 23 August 2016, <http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/industry/labelling/Pages/Nutrition-health-and-related-claims.aspx>
- Cavaliere, A, De Marchi, E, & Banterle, A 2016, ‘Does consumer health-orientation affect the use of nutrition facts panel and claims? An empirical analysis in Italy’, Food Quality and Preference, vol. 54, pp. 110-116.
- Health Star Rating System n.d., About Health Star Ratings, viewed 23 August 2016, <http://healthstarrating.gov.au/internet/healthstarrating/publishing.nsf/content/home>