Health Stars and Halloween
Australia and New Zealand have introduced an easy to understand front-of-pack Health Star Rating system. A key question is whether children understand the system and whether it affects their food choice. A recent experience had surprising results.
The WHO Draft Final Report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (WHO Report) has among its recommendations –
– ‘Developing nutrient-profiles to help Member States to identify unhealthy foods and non-alcoholic beverages’
– ‘Help consumers make healthier choices by … considering interpretive front-of-pack labelling supported by public education of both adults and children for nutrition literacy.’
In support of this recommendation the WHO Report states, ‘As the child enters school, health and nutrition literacy should be included in the curriculum…’
These recommendations not only make common sense but also are not new and have been adopted in many jurisdictions. However implementing these quite simple recommendations can take many years.
Health Star Ratings
In Australia and New Zealand a Health Star Rating system was adopted 16 months ago. It is a 10-step system similar to hotel ratings ranging from 5 Stars down to 0.5 Stars. The Stars are awarded according to a rigorous nutrient profiling system. The system took several years to develop. Work started in 2006 and in 2009 the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council appointed an independent panel to review food labelling law and policy. Recommendation 50 in their 2011 report said,
‘That an interpretive front of pack labelling system be developed that is reflective of a comprehensive Nutrition Policy and agreed public health priorities’.
A multiple traffic light system was favoured.
Subsequently the Ministerial Council appointed a Steering Committee consisting of the Australian, State and New Zealand Governments. It in turn appointed an Advisory Committee to develop an interpretive front-of-pack labelling system. It had members from Government, public health, industry and consumer groups. It was decided that a star rating system that took into account positive as well as negative nutrients was better than a multi-traffic light system. A Health Star Rating was developed which was broadly based on the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) nutrient profiling system for health claims.
The Health Star Rating system was introduced in Australia and New Zealand at the end of June 2014 on a voluntary basis. In Australia 35 major companies are listed as adopting the system. The cereal industry has been quick to adopt the system and the two largest companies, Sanitarium and Kellogg’s, have Health Stars on virtually all of their cereal products. An analysis of the Kellogg’s portfolio is interesting.
Kellogg’s have 45 different cereals.
– 3 (6.7%) rate 5 Health Stars
– 15 (33.3%) rate 4.5 Health Stars
– 13 (28.9%) rate 4 Health Stars
– 2 (4.4%) rate 3.5 Health Stars
– 4 (8.9%) rate 3 Health Stars
– 8 (17.8% rate 2 Health Stars
These figures are most impressive with 69% of the product range rating 4 Stars or higher. To give some context broccoli rates 5 Stars, carrots rate 4.5 Stars, a chicken sandwich rates 4 Stars, scrambled egg rates 3.5 Stars, a bread cheese roll rates 3 Stars and a cup of tea rates 2 Stars. Most chocolate rates 0.5 Stars
Cereal manufacturers are leading the way with Health Star adoption but a number of other products now have them on the packaging including confectionery. The house branded Woolworths (Countdown in NZ) Halloween confectionary range had Health Star Ratings – Skull Head Pops rated 1.5 Stars and Gummy Body Parts rated a relatively high 2 Stars.
My wife and I recently spent time staying with our family in Sydney. We happened to be there during Halloween. At our first breakfast Lara, our 9 year-old granddaughter, went through the range of cereals on the table and informed me of the number of Health Stars each had – they ranged from 4 to 5 Stars. I was suitably impressed. When I asked how she knew about the Health Stars she replied that she had been taught it at school. At subsequent breakfasts when a new cereal appeared there was discussion about its Health Star Rating.
In terms of the abovementioned recommendations in the WHO report all boxes have been ticked
– A nutrient profiling system has been developed that identifies which foods are healthy and unhealthy
– An interpretive front-of-pack labelling system has been developed and is being progressively adopted
– Nutrition literacy is being taught in schools
Halloween night was an enlightening experience. My job on the night was to sit on the front porch with a huge bowl of a assorted lollies awaiting visitors. I was visited by dozens of scary looking children. Adults accompanied younger children and the younger teenagers and tweens hunted in packs. Lollies were limited to one per child. When some younger children said ‘Trick or Treat’ I replied ‘Trick’. All of them then performed a trick like standing on their head. None of them realised that the trick was to be played on me not performed for me – what delightful innocence. A good trick was rewarded with two lollies.
I then tried an experiment. When a child selected a lolly I pointed out that the Gummy Body Parts lolly had two Health Stars. The selected lolly was quickly dropped and replaced with the Gummy Body Part. It was truly amazing.
This is a personal experience and falls short of solid evidence on the effectiveness of the Health Star Rating system, but it gives us a clue. In this small sample there was a good knowledge by children that the more Health Stars a product had the healthier it was and those products were eaten in in preference to lower rated or non-rated foods in the category. Confectionery was clearly the preferred food on Halloween night and was perceived as a treat. Replacing it with fruit or vegetables such as carrots was not viable.
It appears that children are happy to eat healthier options within each category provided the food is tasty. We hypothesise that education along with the easy to understand Health Star Rating system will benefit not only the young consumers but reward the food manufacturers with higher rated products gaining higher sales. Some cereal manufacturers will already know whether this hypothesis is correct.