a small space sits modestly on the front of packaged food. A space that brings industry, consumer groups, health experts, and the government into heated and intense dispute. This highly fought over and valued communicative space is better known as the Front of Pack (FoP) label.

Is it possible to satisfy all the competing agendas, and have a truly useful and transparent FoP label? The powerful forces of marketing, profit-margins, minimal regulatory burdens and competition, can frequently stand above food safety and consumer health.

Despite the tensions between these conflicting interests, it is agreed that some form of FoP label is required to aid consumer choice in an ever-growing convenience food society.

New Zealand is increasingly becoming an obesogenic nation, with one-in-three adults, and one-in-nine children, now classified as obese. Related to obesity is Type 2 diabetes. Approximately 200,000 New Zealanders are currently diagnosed with this condition. This disease usually presents itself in adults over the age of 30-40 years. However, increasing numbers of teenagers and children are developing Type 2 diabetes. For many people (not all), this disease is totally preventable through healthy food choices, and remaining active.

Government initiatives have been set in place to improve the health of New Zealanders, ranging from increased numbers of publicly-funded bariatric surgeries (stomach reduction) to the urban cycleway programme.

Alongside these sits the Voluntary Health Star Rating System (HSR), introduced in June 2014, a system for front-of-pack labelling. The aim of this system is to help consumers make quicker and healthier food choices, intervening at point of sale. HRS was developed through the collaboration of the New Zealand Government, public health experts, food and beverage industry representatives, and consumer groups.

The system uses a star rating scale of half a star to five stars. Foods with more stars have a better nutritional value. The star rating of a product is based on the amount of energy, saturated fat, sugars, sodium, protein and fibre it contains. Beneficial aspects of food such as its fruit and vegetable content, are incorporated into the final calculation.

To be effective, the labelling scheme needs to act as a ‘tool in the box’ to improve population health through the reduction of obesity and diet-related illness. The Food Labelling Review of Law and Policy independent committee (2011) recommended the use of the Multiple Traffic Light (MTL) system, as used in the UK, to face this challenge.

Many studies had proven the overall effectiveness of MTL systems in helping consumers choose healthier products to fight obesity. It is quick, easy to interpret, and consumer friendly, sending a clear signal of the products healthiness. However, the food and beverage industry rejected this option, favouring HSR, despite studies showing that this scheme, along with the Daily Intake (DI) only scheme, perform less well in terms of accuracy. Participants in such studies were left confused and ‘looking for more’.

The NZ Food and Grocery Council argue that the Health Star scheme has two advantages over the MTL scheme – firstly it is easy to understand, and secondly it is ‘interpretative’ summarising of nutrient and ingredient information. It balances the good nutrients with the bad, therefore evaluating the whole product, and not just individual elements.

Ben Warren, founder of BePure, a successful health and nutrition company is critical of any products that carry the star rating. “If it has a star rating you probably should not be eating it! Use it as a warning. Really, it’s a joke! We can do a lot better than this. Many of the products that carry the star rating are simple, processed carbohydrates, high in sugar, salt and fat. They are so naturally devoid of good nutrition they have to add a load of stuff and cover the packet with empty claims such as ‘added vitamins and minerals’ just so they appear healthier. It’s not OK to justify the eating of these foods, in which many are targeted at children and the lower socio-economic groups.”

Food manufacturers have the option of displaying one ‘positive’ nutrient and can use the word ‘high’ or ‘low’. For example, Kellogg’s Coco Pops displays ‘Iron’ along with the word ‘high’, leading consumers to believe it could be a ‘healthier’ product when compared to one with low iron. But, the sugar content of this food is very high, at nine teaspoons per 100 grams, and yet it still gains a two star rating.

Despite this potential to mislead, the scheme has been welcomed by some public health practitioners who believe it’s a ‘step in the right direction’ and a desperately- needed consistent FoP label that will help consumers compare package foods. But Warren argues, “The system leads the community to believe they are making healthy food choices, but they are not! They are simply picking the best foods out of the worst. I have many clients that come to me when they have literally tried everything else. They have followed the Government’s ‘healthy eating’ programmes and are still struggling with diet-related disease.”

He notes, “A comment I frequently hear is ‘I follow what the food label says, yet I am still struggling to manage my diabetes.’ It’s not right. People are still so unaware of what good eating actually is. When you are unaware of something you do not think to seek further knowledge.”

Dietitian Diane Stride, based at the Village Health Centre in Havelock North, has mixed feelings about the system. “You cannot tackle a broad, complex problem like obesity with a rating system based on individual items, it’s a too narrow approach, it will barely scratch the surface. It does not take into account patterns of learnt eating behaviour, emotional eating disorders, and the loss of connection we have with our food.”

She remarks, “This system is potentially risky. Food producers are able to manipulate their products to gain a higher star rating. For example, they could remove sugar and replace it with an artificial sweetener. These in themselves hold the potential for creating further health problems. Current research is indicating sweeteners may interfere with gut bacteria disrupting metabolic health. Despite the use of artificial sweeteners in many products, obesity and Type 2 diabetes are still on the rise.”

Stride feels that if a company takes a proactive stance by legitimately improving their products to gain a higher rating then it could be a good thing, but is sceptical as to the reality of this. Kellogg’s Nutri-grain recently lowered its sugar content from three teaspoons per serving to two and a half teaspoons, and added fibre. Nutri-grain was awarded a four star rating, due to these changes. According to the Obesity Policy Coalition, this amount of sugar is still well above the ‘good’ limit for a healthy choice.

Both Diane and Ben agree there is no substitute for a balanced diet made up of unprocessed wholefoods. Being on the front line of community health they are acutely aware of the dire lack of knowledge surrounding what we eat. Is this new labelling scheme a praiseworthy attempt by Government to tackle the obesity epidemic, or just a marketing ploy by the food industry, exploiting nutrition illiteracy to lure more consumption of fundamentally unhealthy, high-margin products?

Your opinion please, to editors@ baybuzz.co.nz 

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