Food Labeling Systems Should Not Create More Confusion than Clarity

Australia is embarking on a long-awaited overhaul of its Health Star Rating (HSR) food labeling system, amidst a worsening obesity epidemic. The fact that a full 63% of Australia’s adult population is overweight or obese—and that approximately one in four children suffers from the same affliction—is particularly concerning given that obesity is a major risk factor for severe complications from the novel coronavirus.

The HSR, first launched in 2014 on a voluntary basis, aimed to provide consumers with a simple nutritional rating, ranging from half a star to 5 stars—with the hope that it would enable them to make healthier choices. In its first five years, however, the HSR has received its fair share of criticism as some of the scheme’s ratings have been singled out as baffling and arbitrary. The government is now weighing up potential changes to the system—but these run the risk of muddling the picture further. Given the precedent set by a similar furor over food labeling in Europe, the authorities must tread carefully to avoid stirring up confusion among the Australian public as they seek to address the country’s chronic dietary problems.

Design flaws undermining HSR

The government’s quinquennial report concluded that HSR is “performing well,” but there is undoubtedly room for improvement. For example, an independent review found that the system’s algorithm allows nutritious ingredients to cancel out the presence of unhealthy ones, thus skewing its results. In a succinctly damning statistic, the study’s authors found that 77% of ultra-processed products and 57% of “discretionary” foods (typically, ones that prioritize calorific over nutritional content) received a rating of 2.5 or higher.

The five-year review would seem to be an optimal time to patch up some of the system’s weak points. Australian officials, however, are showing little appetite for addressing long-standing issues. In response to the fact that canola oil and sunflower oil are rated as “healthier” under the current system than extra virgin olive oil—something that any nutritionist would scratch their head at—Australian officials seemed cavalier about the flaw. The five-year-report acknowledged the scientific evidence indicating that olive oil is healthier than refined seed oils, but recommended that the status quo be maintained, quipping that “the HSR system cannot and does not take into account all of the different reasons a food may have health benefits.”

To make matters worse, some of the recommended changes to the HSR system may make it even more inconsistent than it currently is. Under proposed new criteria, more than 50% of all cheese products were given a rating of 3 stars or less, with some even earning a solitary star due to their high saturated fat content. This, despite the fact that cheese is widely considered as a key component of a healthy diet, and five out of five dieticians recommend including cheese in a balanced diet. By contrast, highly-processed cheddar-flavored biscuits scored higher, as did chocolate-flavored breakfast cereal Milo. Indeed, even the confectionery industry has spoken out against the HSR’s falsely favorable reviews of their own products.

The European debate

Of course, the teething problems facing food labeling are not confined to Australia by any stretch of the imagination. The EU has been the battleground for a similar controversy, with a subsection of member states and MEPs promoting France’s controversial Nutri-score system. While a number of EU countries have adopted the framework and a coalition of MEPs, scientists and activists have written to the European Commission (EC), petitioning it to adopt Nutri-Score on a bloc-wide scale, not everyone is so enamored.

Part of the problem with Nutri-score is that it goes too far in its efforts to provide consumers with a simple and streamlined label. The scheme assigns foodstuffs a letter grade from A to E, ensconced in a color-coded bubble. A food marked with a green A is ostensibly nutritious, while a food labeled with a red E is considered unhealthy. The algorithm, however, calculates these scores on the basis of 100g or 100ml—an arbitrary measurement which does not take into consideration the usual portion size of a given product.

Italy has taken particular umbrage at the traffic lighting system, which unfavorably ranks many of the country’s national exports, such as olive oil, Parma ham, and parmigiana cheese. Given that a tin of processed sausage outranks Parma ham and a can of sugar-free Coke is preferable to extra-virgin olive oil according to the Nutri-Score scale, it’s hard not to agree that the Mediterranean diet – traditionally viewed as one of the healthiest in the world – is unfairly disadvantaged.

As an alternative, Italy has launched its own Nutrinform system, which does not simplify nutritional content into a good/bad dichotomy, but rather presents it in a “battery” format, where a nutrient’s recommended daily allowance (RDA) is indicated by the “charging” of a battery. This, Italy argues, is a fairer way of labeling food, since it puts the choice into consumer’s hands by simply equipping them with the facts.

Proceeding with caution

The EU has yet to make a decision on whether it will throw its considerable backing behind one single labeling system. While the Australian HSR has no such rivals, it’s unlikely it will become a legal obligation in the upcoming update, despite the entreaties of the academic community. However, one of the recommendations is to monitor the HSR scheme’s uptake over the next five years and, if it does not appear on at least 70% of packaged foodstuffs by 2025, make it mandatory. Such a course of action would seem to represent a responsible and prudent approach to bringing its food labeling protocol into line.

Perfecting the exact details of that protocol might be a trickier nut to crack, however. While it’s clear that the current algorithms used to calculate a product’s HSR are far from perfect, too much tinkering with the formula could risk alienating a public only just beginning to understand it. Nutritional labeling is certainly a valuable tool in allowing the public to make informed choices about their diet, but can only serve its purpose if it remains sensible, even-handed, and intuitively understood by all.