Geoff Simmons welcomes the introduction of food labels, despite obvious flaws, and sees this as just the start of understanding the food value of what we eat

Geoff Simmons welcomes the introduction of food labels, despite obvious flaws, and sees this as just the start of understanding the food value of what we eat

By Geoff Simmons

The Government, in line with our Australian cousins, is finally bringing in a new front of pack labelling system for all packaged food (the stuff at the supermarket).

It’s a step in the right direction, but we desperately need more before the diabetes problem runs away with us.

It’s taken three years, and the preferred approach recommended by nutritionists has been ditched along the way, but we finally have an agreed label that tells consumers how healthy a product is.

The health star rating system uses a nutrition model to rate foods out of 5 stars – from a 1 star for complete junk like soft drinks (like school, no one likes to get a zero) through to 5 for plain yoghurt and wheat biscuits.

Why is this important?

The Government’s response to the obesity and diabetes crisis we face is to say that what we eat is a matter of individual choice.

Given that half of Kiwis say they don’t know how to eat healthily – and most of the other half don’t really know what they are doing either – people aren’t really making an informed choice at the moment.

This isn’t helped by the mixed messages people get through the media and advertising. The health star rating system will (hopefully) help inform people over time.

Of course, this won’t change the way we eat overnight.

People will still want to eat the same kind of food – so don’t expect frozen pizza to disappear overnight.

What we do know is that this sort of labeling will influence people’s choices between similar products, so they are more likely to choose the healthier pizza option.

The real benefits of this will become apparent when the food industry starts reformulating their recipes to make them healthier.

So a standard label on the front of food packaging, which informs people about nutritional content, is a good step forward.

But there are a couple of problems with the Government’s tentative first step: it isn’t compulsory, and a standard label still doesn’t mean people will understand what they are eating.

The biggest hole in the proposal is that it is voluntary.

Naturally this means that all the products for whom the star rating system is bad news will simply not display it.

Soft drink manufacturers seem set to stick with their daily intake guide, which works for them because no one understands or uses it.

The Government is loathe to make it compulsory because of the additional costs to food businesses – never mind the millions of dollars that obesity and diabetes are costing our health system already. The promise is that if uptake is ‘low’ then the Government will review making it compulsory in three years.

Why wait?

The other problem is that people won’t understand this labelling system without an information campaign.

There isn’t much evidence on the health star rating system, but it appears to be less effective at helping people identify unhealthy foods than the well researched alternative: the traffic light labelling system.

Consumers intuitively understand the red light means a food is unhealthy, which is why the food industry pressured the Government into ruling out using traffic lights from the start. Of course the food industry dislike the connotation of a ‘red’ light – it means stop. The food industry never wants you to stop, even if you should.

So if the healthy star rating system is going to work, people need to be told what the stars mean, otherwise they might think 1 star is okay and 5 is great.

The truth is that 1 star really means a food should be considered a ‘treat’ or very occasional food – in the once-a-month sense of the word rather than the everyday sense it has become.

We need an information campaign to hammer this home.

One final concern is on the ratings themselves.

Most labelling systems throw up some anomalies, however you have to wonder a bit when orange juice and flavoured  (albeit low fat) milk get rated as healthier than full fat milk.

The nutrition model behind the stars must be made available to the public so that it can be critiqued and improved, and most importantly so that we can work out the star ratings on the products that choose not to display them.

These glitches are not surprising – the Government is taking its usual position of looking like it is doing something while avoiding doing anything effective. That this would be the outcome was evident from the outset when the group was chosen to advise the Government on labelling. Half the group representatives were from large food companies, so the turkeys were never going to vote for Christmas were they?

So in all the labelling system is a step forward. Consumers should make sure they buy products with the star rating, that will encourage food companies to use the new label.

The consumers should blacklist any food that doesn’t take it up.

Any well-intentioned group would have made it compulsory from the start, so consumers will need to force the pace on this still.


Geoff Simmons is an economist at the Morgan Foundation. This opinion piece was first published on the blog and is reprinted here with permission.

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Great idea.

It's not going to make much difference, even though it is done with good intention.
Nobody needs little stars printed all over the food to know that a bottle of coke and a bag of chips is no good and an apple or tomato is healthy.
Just observe tradies, usually no breakfast except coffee, then greasy meat pies, filled rolls, sausage rolls, chips washed down with an "energy" drink for lunch. God knows what they have for dinner at the end of a long day if they don't have a partner willing to organise it.
Needs to be education at school level to make kids aware that ALL packaged food is basically cr@p packed with sugar/salt/grease to make people swallow it.

For goodness sake, young Moderns are such pathetic creatures: fancy needing pervy-pollies and their departments to tell you what to eat!

The people who rated orange juice at 4.5 can't have worked in a hospital paediatric dental ward.  A city child health trust I was involved with had dental caries in preschoolers as the No 1 issue. Fruit juice was a significant part of the problem.  Orange juice as a drink should be always diluted with water, or better still just drink water.
I notice the sugar/fat etc levels are g per pack not per 100gms. Per 100gms makes it easier to compare.  It reminds me of the 'Heart Tick' which implied 'healthy' - somewhat debateable.

g per 100gms doesn't always work.
If you are looking at 300ml bottle of coke vs a 350 bottle of pepsi, what matters is how much is in the bottle, because you are going to drink the whole bottle.  coke might have more sugar/100gm, but less overall as it's a smaller serve.

I accept your point.  However perhaps it shows that nothing is really valid as you are unlikely to drink a 2litre bottle of coke in one sitting *though some people may).  If you have a health issue such as diabetes/heart condition, often your education in reading labels is around using 5g/100g etc to measure if the food you are buying is good for your health.  
Let's face it - if people don't want to change their habits, stars or traffic lights on food packaging isn't going to make any difference.

fruit is mostly sugar and water.   still puzzled to why health experts say its so great for the body.  But they are the experts so what they say must become true.

If orange juice is indeed rated at 4.5 then clearly this system is meaningless, because there is more and more evidence that juice drinking is a contributing factor to childhood obescity (let alone the dental implications).
e.g., and many more. Given the experts can't agree on what's healthy (e.g., is butter good or bad? and we don't all process food the same way (e.g., lactose intolerance) I don't see how this system can work.

So those still obese after all this information is provided can therefore be pilloried as their obesity must be a personal choice

or people could just feeling the need to pillorise others, and also discard the daft need to feel that it is the rest of the community's duty to support any result health and discomfort issue their informed choices have created.   After all, the straight up consequences of their informed choices must be their right to endure...

ie you break a law, then the law must act to punish you.... but if you knowing consume enough to damage your own health then really, who else can possibly be responsible for the result.  It's not like a policeperson has to inflict the damage, they've done it themselves

What we need is factual labelling.  
Take a look at some sweet products at your local supermarket, one particular company has their label as "Contains real fruit juice" and then read the VERY fine prints, it said 2.5% fruit juice. Would it make a different to consumer behaviour if the label says "contains 2.5% fruit juice"?  Yes, I think so.

The healthiest way of course is to consume those foodstuffs that don't need a label at all...

Well, taking the commercial view, there's a marvy Big Data deal in all this.

  • Log the star count onto your loyalty card at POS time along with the SKU's, the values and the product counts.
  • Sell that (anonymised data, yeah, right) to insurers and DHB's whose costs and claim ratios vary in some correlation to them Stars.

Stand back and watch as a Virtuous Circle takes shape:  lower excesses and premiums for the Lotsa Stars crew.  (And, in accord with Newton, watch as the Black Hats get theirs...)
Careful what'cha wish for.....