Can food labelling help consumers make healthier choices and drive the nation’s diets back into balance? It’s a topic that provokes heated discussion as nutrition labelling is a key policy lever to drive healthier food choices and reduce obesity levels.

Two new food labelling policy papers – Health Star Rating (HSR) system 5-year review report and the labelling of sugars on packaged foods and drinks – have added more fuel to the fire. Regulators are now deciding whether to adopt these reports’ recommendations at their next meeting in November 2019.

The Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation comprises all Australian and New Zealand Ministers responsible for food and the Australian Local Government Association and is chaired by Senator Richard Colbeck.

We’ve taken a look at the three key takeaways from these new reports and what they mean for nutrition labelling in Australia.

1. The health star rating system remains voluntary for now

The health star rating system, or HSR , is now displayed on 31% of packaged foods and drinks in Australia. Supermarket chains like Coles and Woolworths have been among the highest adopters of the health star rating on their home brand labels, but there is a long way to go before all packaged goods carry this visual identifier.

The review set a target for 70% of packaged food and drinks to carry the HSR but noted that improving the HSR system, including the algorithm that calculates how many stars a food or drink should have, should be the main focus before mandating the HSR be on all packaged foods and drinks.

Health Star Rating labels

The bottom line for nutrition labels:

Although HSR adoption is voluntary, the majority (77%) of Australian consumers find the HSR easy to understand and agree it makes choosing products easier (63%). As consumer awareness grows – and public health and consumer groups continue advocating for greater adoption of HSR on packaged foods – the HSR is a great labelling tool to communicate the nutrition credentials of your product to consumers at a glance.

HSR is not going to replace a product’s unique nutrition content claims such as “resistant starch fibre” or “prebiotics” but using the star ratings signals the company’s support to empower consumers to make informed buying decisions.

2. How the health star ratings are calculated will change

Five changes have been proposed to the way the HSR is calculated to issue its ratings which go from half a star up to five stars. Most importantly, total sugars are to be more heavily penalised and dairy categories redefined. Other changes include increasing sodium sensitivity, assigning five stars to all fruit and vegetables with no added fat, sugar or salt and re-categorising jellies and water-based ice confection.

These changes will mean that approximately 10% of products (which are mostly discretionary foods) will reduce their HSR and 6% of products (mostly core foods like breakfast cereals) will increase their HSR.

The bottom line for nutrition labels:

These changes should help consumers see the difference between core nutritious foods and discretionary treat foods. The changed algorithm will impact on the number of stars on a range of products. This is also a signal around the importance of the food and drink industry to be prepared for these changes through reformulation or consumer communications. Once the review recommendations are approved, there will be a two-year transition process which will allow companies time to address the implications of these changes.

3. Added sugars are proposed to be added to the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP).

All packaged food and drinks in Australia carry a nutrition information panel (NIP) . In line with recent food labelling changes in the USA, added sugars are now proposed to be displayed as a separate line in the NIP, underneath total sugars. This change has been weighed up against other options, such as grouping added sugars in the ingredients list, and is seen as the most reasonable solution based on cost-benefit analysis.

This change is proposed to be mandatory for all packaged foods and beverages, requiring all manufacturers to quantify the amount of added sugars in their products. Cost estimates have been made of about $2500 AUD per SKU to quantify added sugars in order to make the necessary label changes, however this is a rough figure as it is still unclear at this stage what methodology will be required to be used to quantify added sugars.

The bottom line for nutrition labels:

It’s likely that added sugars will be included in the NIP as consumers and health influencers advocate for greater transparency in nutrition labelling. What is unclear, is how the inconsistency between sugars in the HSR (total sugars) and sugars in the NIP (added sugars) is going to be managed. More consumer research will be needed to understand the impact of this proposed change on consumer translation and purchasing behaviour.

The future of nutrition labels from here:

If the overall goal of nutrition labelling is to help consumers make healthier and easier choices at point of purchase, we’d like to see more research around:

  • the HSR and sugar labelling’s impact in the real-world where consumers are choosing products as opposed to making selections in survey settings; and
  • the long-term impact of labelling initiatives on purchasing behaviour and dietary intake.

For now, it’s up to the Forum to weigh up the recommendations and decide on the outcomes of these reviews – we look forward to finding out the detail in November and will publish an update. For help in understanding the nutrition labelling landscape, please contact Monique at Appetite [email protected]

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