‘This is bad for you’: Calls for food star ratings and warning labels to be mandated

Food products loaded with sugar and fat should have stop-sign warning labels on the packaging, and the country’s health star rating system should be made mandatory, health advocates and researchers say.

A new research paper analysing hundreds of international studies on food labelling has found prominent warning labels had the largest impact on pushing down consumption of unhealthy processed food.

In Chile, black warning labels shaped like stop signs are mandatory for packaged food and drinks with high levels of sugar, salt, saturated fat or calories.Credit:stas_kulesh/Twitter 

Chile introduced black front-of-pack warning labels for food and drinks exceeding limits for sugar, salt, saturated fat or calories in 2016. Several other countries have since followed with similar mandatory warnings, including Israel, which has red labels.

Chris Dubelaar, Deakin University’s professor of marketing and a co-author of the paper, said that the only type of labelling that really prevented people from buying unhealthy foods were very big “in-your-face labels that say ‘this is bad for you’.”

Chile’s warning labels.Credit:@stas_kulesh  Twitter 

Dubelaar said his research also found that schemes such as Australia’s voluntary health star rating system did encourage people to buy more healthy food, but they did not discourage people from also choosing unhealthy options.

Because the food star rating labels are voluntary, unhealthy items are less likely to feature a health rating. Only about 41 per cent of eligible products were using the health star rating system in 2019.

“Companies say, ‘Well, I don’t want to put a half-star on my product’. Then consumers are left to fend for themselves,” Dubelaar said.

The study has bolstered calls from the Obesity Policy Coalition to introduce warnings for foods high in sugar and fat, but also to improve and mandate the current voluntary health star rating system, which rates the nutritional profile of package foods from half a star to five stars.

The group’s executive manager, Jane Martin, said traffic light colours could be added to the health star rating icons, where foods with more than four stars are coloured green and foods with fewer than two stars are coloured red, for example.

There are calls for traffic light colours to be added to the health star rating icons. This is an example of what alternative labels could look like.

Martin said prominent food labels were intended not just to influence what food people buy, but also to encourage manufacturers to reformulate their products.

Professor Simone Pettigrew from the George Institute for Global Health said analysis by the institute on food labelling in more than 20 countries showed that there were three things that made food labels effective.

They needed to be mandatory, use colour and have an overall rating: “That’s such an important part … because you are doing the mental work for the consumer.”

Because of this, she argued that improving the health star rating by making the scheme mandatory and adding colour would be better than replacing it with black warning labels, which can just blend into packaging.

In addition to the health star rating, she said warning labels may be useful on some products, such as sugary beverages.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand was considering placing a “sugar pictorial” on sugary drinks, such as an image showing how many spoonfuls of sugar were contained in a bottle. But in 2021, it said it recommended no further work on this option while governments were instead focusing on increasing uptake of the health star rating system to 70 per cent of products by 2025.

An analysis of the purchases of more than 2000 Chilean households before and after the country’s labelling change in 2016 found significant reductions of purchases of foods high in sodium, fat and sugars. However, this was offset somewhat by calories made through healthier purchases, which means the reduction in calories overall was modest, only about 1.7 per cent, according to the small study.

Dubelaar argued if governments could get even some people to stop eating unhealthy foods, then the obesity rates will at least plateau, if not start to decline, helping to ease the burden on the healthcare system caused by conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

More than two-thirds of Australians were overweight or obese in 2018.

University of Technology Sydney Associate Professor Natalina Zlatevska, who was the lead author on the study, said that it was critical Australia made effective food labelling mandatory.

“We need to make it very clear when food is bad for you,” she said

“This is part of a bigger issue around health literacy. Most food labels have too much information that is hard for people to decipher. Complex labels don’t work that well because people don’t understand them.”

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