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Consumer advocacy group Choice is calling on health ministers to remodel the current Health Star Rating System (HSRS) to distinguish between added sugars and naturally occurring sugars in foods. Products, particularly cereals, could lose up to 2.5 star ratings under the proposed changes.

Rather than having a combined, single category for total sugars, Choice – along with medical research unit, The George Institute for Global Health – is suggesting changes to the HSRS algorithm to differentiate sugar added by manufacturers during processing, to intrinsic sugars that occur naturally in products such as milk and fruit.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports the review of the HSRS was part of the agenda at the Australian and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food regulation on last Friday (28 June), but has now been postponed indefinitely. 

Choice food expert Linda Przhedetsky says: “The Health Star Rating System is meant to help people glance at a group of products to understand which options are healthier than others. Health Stars are a good system but they need to be stronger to really help people make easy decisions.”

“Choice's own modelling has found that increased penalties for added sugar could significantly impact the Health Star Ratings that products are given. Some products containing added sugar would lose as much as 2.5 stars. However, healthier products that contain naturally occurring sugars – like fruit and dairy – gain stars,” she says. 

Choice proposed HSRS changes and potential product rating changes.

The HSRS is a voluntary font-of-pack labelling scheme that rates the nutritional profile of packaged foods from 0.5 (least healthy) to 5 stars (most healthy). It was introduced in 2014 following a review of food labelling law and policy.

Przhedetsky said added sugars can be hidden in both sweet and savoury foods, and are often listed under multiple names in ingredient lists making it difficult for customers to make accurate assessments on how healthy a product is.

“Manufacturers should clearly label the amount of added sugar that they put in what we eat and drink, and this should be reflected in Health Star Ratings,” she says.

Earlier this year, the government provided a draft report on recommended updates as part of a five-year review of the HSR system. Among its findings, the review recommended that the HSRS would continue and find more ways to be promoted, as well as ensuring the star rating are better aligned with dietary guidelines, including stronger penalties for sugars and an automatic rating of 5 for fresh, frozen or canned fruit and vegetables with no added sugar, salt or fat.

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