How long will it take for Health Stars to truly reflect what's healthy and what's not?

By Charles Fisher and Joe Lederman (FoodLegal Principals)

© Lawmedia Pty Ltd, May 2016

It is becoming clear from ever-increasing scientific research that there is no definitive link between saturated fat and cardio vascular disease. In fact, the cause may be some of the polyunsaturated fats that the medical community had been previously pushing us towards. In light of this, how long will it take for the Health Star ratings to stop unjustly punishing foods that are in fact good for us?

What the research is now saying

In April 2016, it was our privilege to hear all of the speakers at The Future of Food Symposium held by FoodLegal in Melbourne. Two of the speakers included leading Australian experts in nutritional health, particularly in the area of fats.

Professor Andrew Sinclair of Deakin University and Professor Robert Gibson from the University of Adelaide explained the new research which strongly suggests saturated fats are not as bad as the health warnings say.

Professor Sinclair highlighted a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2015  which found that saturated fats in fact are not associated with coronary heart disease, ischaemic stroke or type 2 diabetes.

Furthermore, the University of Adelaide’s Professor Gibson said it was inflammation that was the key and one of the key dietary triggers of inflammation is in fact excessive consumption of certain polyunsaturated fats, including omega 6. As mentioned in the preamble, it has been the fear of saturated fats that has driven their replacement by omega 6 fatty acids such as linoleic acid. In other words, incorrect medical and nutrition information has possibly contributed to the increase in coronary heart disease, ischaemic stroke and type 2 diabetes, rather than tackled it.

Alarmingly, one of the issues raised was the current fat ratios set by the Infant Formula Standards and how both industry and regulation was pushing infant formula into levels of omega-6 fatty acids that were much more out of proportion than breast milk, possibly even further contributing to the problem.

Professor Gibson went on to recommend that a healthy diet should have a ratio of 2:1 between omega 6 fatty acids and omega 3 fatty acids. Interestingly, professor Gibson highlighted that some foods, such as butter, which are high in saturated fats but contain this ideal ratio with polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Professor Sinclair suggested healthy fats were those high in monosaturates, such as olive oil.

But what are the regulations pushing both industry and consumers towards?

The weight of this evidence has been building for some time.

It can therefore be seen as a travesty that Australia’s Health Star Ratings scheme algorithm and the Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criterion (NPSC) algorithm of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, are based in an outdated scientific view that we should be avoiding saturated fatty acids.

The problem exists not only in Australia but, to a large extent, globally, because a lot of the incorrect information emanated from the global forums of the World Health Organisation and meetings of the Codex Alimentarius Commission.  Unfortunately, scientifically accepted group-think is difficult to change, despite the findings that should overturn the orthodoxy.  In Australia, the introduction of nutrient profiling into mandatory regulation first started with the introduction of Standard 1.2.7 in to the Food Standards Code in January 2013. Standard 1.2.7 created and contained the NPSC so as to draw a regulatory line in the sand between food products that would be eligible to make health claims and products that would not be eligible to make health claims. This was in response to a preventative health mandate that wished to use health claims as a market incentive to industry to provide “healthier” food products.

The NPSC punishes products on their energy, sugar, salt and saturated fat content while rewarding them on their fruit, vegetable, fibre and protein content.

Like any such line, its very creation led to anomalies and discrepancies. FSANZ acknowledged this fact when the Standard was implemented. Nonetheless, for many products, it has developed as an indicator of “healthiness”.

The NPSC was created as a threshold to an optional incentive. This is in stark contrast to the Health Star Ratings which – if you do not get many stars – will act as negative marketing on the front of your label. The Health Star algorithm was created using the NPSC as a foundation so it too punishes products that are high in saturated fats.

Given the pressure exerted on industry to adopt the Health Star Ratings, the anomalies contained within the algorithm have become even more apparent. Fruit juice (which is intrinsically high in sugar and energy) gets five stars when vegetables such as pumpkin or celery only get 4.5 stars. French fries can get a similar health star rating to lettuce.

Ignoring the inherent problems with the algorithm, what if the very foundational idea of what is “healthy” turns out to be incorrect? What if dairy fats are better for you than some vegetable fats? What if coconut oil (famously only 1 star) and indeed chocolate are better for you than some of the highly processed products created to get the best out of the algorithm?  Why should all saturated fats be punished when the real problems are trans fats as well as the ratio of polyunsaturated fats?

Obviously, the algorithm would have to change or else the Health Star Ratings would at best fail to achieve their purpose, and at worst mislead consumers into eating less healthy food as a consequence of an unfair punishment imposed on some food category types and their suppliers.

The question then is…

How long will this take to fix?

The NPSC is embedded in legislation. Any change would have to undergo the FSANZ Application process which can take considerable time (by way of illustration, it took 9 years in the case of Standard 1.2.7).

The Health Star Ratings – given it is a government information initiative – is a more flexible beast. The algorithm can change from one day to the next, although the implications to industry already complying with the current algorithm must be considered.

The sad truth is that, based on past history, it might be years before the NPSC and the Health Star Ratings reflect current nutritional knowledge and research.

What is sad is that there is no incentive for industry to make healthier products and actually tackle cardiovascular disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes because in doing so they may end up with a lower health star rating or – if they fail the NPSC – not even be able to educate consumers on pack as to why saturated fats are not the enemy.

That said, if the algorithm ever does change, food companies that were ahead of the research and are producing products low in trans fats with the right ratio of polyunsaturated fats may find themselves in an enviable position of an improved health star rating and the ability to market why that is. Producers of French fries may be disappointed with their drop in health stars.

Either way, better to be aware of what current scientific research is saying and where it is going than to be caught off-guard.

This is general information rather than legal advice and is current as of 24 Sep 2017. We therefore recommend you seek legal advice for your particular circumstances if you want to rely on advice or information to be a basis for any commercial decision-making by you or your business.