Western Australian Cancer Prevention Research Unit (WACPRU), Curtin University

How does the new Health Star Rating system for packaged foods stack up?

Packaged foods form a major part of the average Australian’s diet. As different products within the same food category can vary widely in healthiness, it can be difficult to make the healthy choice. Poor diet is a substantial contributor to cancer risk, which makes it important for individuals to be able to identify healthy foods. Nutrition labels on the front of pre-packaged foods can facilitate healthier choices by providing prominent, simplified information. These labels come in a wide range of formats, but the two that will be most familiar to Australians are the Daily Intake Guide (in use since 2006) and the Health Star Rating (in use since 2015). The Daily Intake Guide emphasises product healthiness through specific nutrients (e.g. sugar, salt, fat) while the Star Rating does so through a formula that weights the levels of various nutrients to form a composite score. Currently both labels coexist in Australian supermarkets with the Health Star Rating set to replace the Daily Intake Guide over the next few years. Until now there has been no research directly comparing which of these labels is more effective at guiding consumers to healthier choices.

Researchers at Curtin University’s WACPRU surveyed a large, diverse sample of Australians (over 1900 males and females, aged 10 to 85, of low and high socioeconomic status) on their impressions fictional cookie, cornflake, pizza and yoghurt products. The product pack images featured either no front-of-pack nutrition label or either the Daily Intake Guide or Health Star Rating and were designed to be unhealthy. Unhealthy variants these foods were the focus of this study since they should be consumed most sparingly and since people tend to consume more of a product when they perceive it to be healthier.

The survey results showed that overall impressions of the products were more positive when the Daily Intake Guide was present on the pack than when the Health Star Rating or no label was present. People also thought the products were healthier and were more willing to buy them with a Daily Intake Guide compared to a Health Star Rating.

One explanation for these findings is that the Health Star provided information in a format that was easy for respondents to understand, thus allowing them to more accurately gauge product healthiness compared to the Daily Intake Guide. The fact that the Daily Intake Guide led to more favourable impressions than no label at all suggests that the label’s mere presence leads them to think more highly of the product it is on.

These findings are highly relevant to policy makers who need to consider which front of pack labels should be applied to foods. It is also important for the general public to be aware of the cognitive biases they may be susceptible to and how to counter these.

The findings of this study have been recently been published in Nutrients.

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