Health Star Rating for Packaged Food is a Welcome Move. But is It Enough?

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In India, consumers have always had a difficult time separating unhealthy food items from their healthy counterparts. The country’s plan to implement a Health Star Rating (HSR) system for packaged food items is a long-pending move. The decision to approve HSR was made with an eye on rise in obesity, diabetes and hypertension in India. This rating will help in bringing about a behavioural change in the population. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has been tasked with overseeing its implementation. The decision was made after a report was released by IIM Ahmedabad on ‘Consumer preferences for different nutrition front-of-pack labels in India’. The rating’s aim is to make customers aware and capable of making informed food choices.

The IIM Ahmedabad Study

The study, which was published in February, is India’s first large-scale randomised controlled experiment conducted among Indian consumers to determine which style of nutrient-specific labelling and summary rating works best. The survey, which included over 20,000 people from all major states, employed five such formats. According to the findings, Health Star Rating and Warning Labels are most preferred for ease of identification, understanding, reliability and acceptance. In the country’s southern, central and western regions, HSR outperformed warning labels.

Health Star Ratings

Health star rating is a labelling system that uses a one-to-five star scale to rate packaged food items. It is one of the many front-of-pack labelling systems (FoPLs). The more stars, the healthier the choice. It is subjected to half-star increments. The manufacturers of products that use the Star Rating are responsible for supplying accurate information and displaying the appropriate star score.

Initially started by the Australian and New Zealand governments in collaboration with the industry, public health and consumer groups, health star ratings are now being used in other countries too.

The Rationale behind Star Ratings

It is imperative to understand that with the rise in consumption of packaged food items, there has been an increase in intake of salt, sugar and fats. This means that the average Indian is now consuming more sodium, trans fat, sugar and refined carbohydrates than ever before. Increase in all of these combined with the large number of calories present in these food items is leading to a surge in non communicable diseases. Even in the younger population, lifestyle diseases like hypertension and diabetes, and heart ailments are on the rise. A large part of this burden can be tackled by reducing intake of salt, sugar and fats.

Currently, the consumer is unable to assess the harm caused by their increased consumption of packaged food. It is also quite difficult to make sense of the pre-existing back-of-packaging labels. They fail to convey the danger posed by consumption of packaged food. HSR is a way to help the consumer make better food choices.

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The Way Forward

The Health Star Rating is a good step in the right direction and can be considered a welcome move. According to FSSAI, the ratings are awarded in accordance with WHO-endorsed dietary recommendations for our country. However, the decision to calculate the rating by subtracting bad components of the substances from the good components is irrational. The effect of bad-for-health substances in our food cannot be negated by the beneficial components. The rating should be based on the composition of sugar, salt and fats. Experience from a lot of countries around the world show that coloured warning labels on the front of the pack work best. The ideal way to educate consumers and reduce excess consumption of these harmful substances is to add warning labels with the proposed health star rating. With increasing food choices, it is essential that the consumer is made aware about the consequences of their food choices.

Mahek Nankani is Assistant Programme Manager, The Takshashila Institution. Dr Harshit Kukreja is Research Analyst, The Takshashila Institution. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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Originally published at www.news18.com

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