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  • Writer's pictureSasha Borissenko

EPISODE 8: 99% fat free


Are all food choices made equal? In episode eight of Chewing the Facts Sasha Borissenko tackles the art of food advertising and Aotearoa’s voluntary health star rating system


These days you won’t find a health star rating on that old Kiwi favourite, Milo.

It’s a big change from 2016 when powdered Milo made headlines for its 4.5 star-rating, which was calculated to include skim milk, even though the powder itself was almost 50 per cent sugar.


But it’s not unusual - only 21 per cent of products displayed the voluntary health star rating in 2019, suggesting the system is struggling to give consumers meaningful information about the products they’re buying.


National Party health spokesperson Shane Reti said this month that he’s keen on ditching the five-star rating system and it has emerged that the Ministry of Health is considering a different tack, with proposed compulsory limits to the amount of sugar and salt in processed foods.


The confusion extends to Nestle’s Milo Cereal, which boasts a Health Star Rating of 4 stars online but only 3.5 stars in Lambton Quay’s Wellington New World.


A Nestle spokesperson explained the product had been reformulated to double the amount of whole-grain and fibre content. Sugar had been reduced by more than 12 per cent.


The roll-out of the new products would explain the discrepancy, the spokesperson said.


Introduced in 2014, the food labelling system uses a rating scale of 0.5 to 5 stars, with the more stars the better. Labels detail the levels of energy, saturated fat, sugars, sodium, and nutrients of packaged products.


Ministry for Primary Industries food safety deputy director general Vincent Arbuckle said no system is perfect.


“Whether a compulsory scheme would [create] change, faster - I don’t know. I see responsible businesses adopting it because they know that consumers don’t want to consume things that are unhealthy.


“Long term, it’s not good business for them to hide large amounts of sugar or large amounts of salt in a formulated product.”


The aim is for 70 per cent of products to display the system by 2025.


Consumer NZ food label specialist Belinda Castles told Chewing the Facts that the voluntary nature of the system gives food companies the opportunity to cherry-pick their healthier products.


“Some companies are great and put them on all their products, but others won’t put them on their 0.5 or one-star product because that’s obviously not going to make it look attractive to consumers.”


Even with the 70 per cent target by 2025, it means 30 per cent of products will be left by the wayside, she said.


“There’s a real issue with it not being a level playing field and not making it easy for consumers to see the difference in the products on the shelves.”


Mexico, Uruguay, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Israel, Iran, Sri Lanka, and Thailand all have mandatory interpretative food labelling systems.


This year, the World Health Organisation released its Global Report on Sodium Intake Reduction by ranking countries on a scale of one to four to describe progress in implementing policies.


New Zealand was given a score of two, with higher rankings prevalent among countries with mandatory labelling systems.


Former health associate minister Barbara Edmonds told Chewing the Facts there may be some improvements made to the system but the advice is still up for consideration.


“The government intervenes at a certain point when there’s a market failure.”

Until then, prudent ministers are tasked with keeping a watching brief on progress, she said.


Chewing the Facts - new episodes out every Sunday. Produced with the NZ Herald, with support from NZ On Air. Show notes are available via chewingthefacts.com.


You can follow the podcast at iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.


This article was originally published via the NZHerald here.


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