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The five year review of the Health Star Rating system considered how well the objectives of the system have been met and also identified several options for improvements.

The Review concluded that overall the system has been performing well and there is strong support for it to continue.

However, a number of recommendations emerged, including several adjustments to better align with dietary guidelines, automatically giving fruit and vegetables five stars, more strongly penalising total sugars and rating unsweetened flavoured waters closer to water to distinguish from juice and sugar-sweetened drinks.

Dr Sally McKay, research fellow, University of Auckland believes the recommendations will improve the accuracy of the system and lessen anomalies around sugar and salt content.

“As the Health Star Rating is only on 21 per cent of labels of packaged foods, the system should be made mandatory now, though at least there is a time-frame (5 years) for improved uptake by industry before considering mandatory labelling. Having the Health Star Rating on all foods would allow customers to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

Meanwhile Professor Emeritus Elaine Rush, Auckland University of Technology would like to see more emphasis on accessibility of healthy foods.

“While there has been some success within categories for reformulation and removal of sugar from products by manufacturers, Health Star Rating is focused mainly on processed food and does not deal with the need to provide better access for everyone to a variety of nutritious foods every day including: plenty of vegetables and fruit, grain foods, mostly whole grain and those naturally high in fibre, some milk and milk products, mostly low and reduced fat (Ministry of Health guideline).”

Rush points to the recently-published food insecurity report from the Ministry of Health which shows that poverty is associated with malnutrition, with one in five children living with severe to moderate food insecurity.

“This is largely due to a lack of sufficient money to pay for food which is not going to be addressed by changing the labels,” says Rush.

“An informed choice is only for those who have the agency, money, time, education and geographical access to the wholesome foods that are recommended. A variety of wholesome foods, mainly plants and not too much every day.”

The next steps will be for members of the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation to respond to the Review Report, and the recommendations contained within. It is anticipated that Forum will respond before the end of 2019.

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