The Health Star Ratings (HSR) system, used here in Australia to determine whether a packaged food is ‘healthy’ or not, has been under a lot of scrutiny.
With various factors, such as voluntary use and not accounting for the quality of the product or its ingredients, mean the product’s healthiness as indicated by the ratings is not always correct.
One factor that is of particular concern is the lack of differentiation between total and added sugars.
Total vs added sugar
Total sugars include added sugar as well as those naturally occurring in any whole food within that product, such as dairy, fruit and veg.
Naturally occurring sugars and the whole foods they are found in are generally not something to worry about. However, added sugars, which can come under the guise of more than 60 names, are being shown to contribute to a myriad of short and long-term health concerns when consumed in excess.
So, by discerning between total and added sugars, we can better ascertain whether the product is a more healthful everyday food (that may contain naturally occurring sugars) or something that should only be consumed occasionally (that contains added sugars).
HSR and separating out added sugars
Partly due to the low-fat dietary drive in the 80s, many products including dressings, soups, sauces and muesli bars have been rammed with added sugars to boost palatability in the absence of a source of fat. At least 70-80% of the products on supermarket shelves contain added sugar!
This contributes to Australians unknowingly consuming large amounts of the added sweet stuff. And Australians already on average consume more than the recommended limit of 6 teaspoons/25 grams per day.
A survey conducted by The George Institute wanted to see if separating out added sugar from total sugar would affect the HSR of packaged products.
And it did.
“We know there are problems, anomalies with the ratings system,” said co-author Professor Bruce Neal. “But by using added sugars, we found higher ratings were given to good foods and lower ratings to unhealthy foods.”
The analysis revealed that of all the nutrients used in the current HSR algorithm, total sugar had the greatest power to discriminate between everyday and occasional foods; otherwise referred to as core or discretionary foods.
More than 34,000 products were included in the analysis; 15,965 were considered core and 18,350 were considered discretionary foods. Of these, 52% and 87% of core and discretionary foods respectively contained added sugar; or 7 out of 10 products we typically find on our supermarket shelves.
It is has been said the food industry has manipulated the HSR system to score higher points. Now, this study adds to mounting pressure for manufacturers to declare the amount of added sugar on packaging and include it as a separate calculation in the HSR.
With clearer labelling separating out added sugar from total sugar, we as consumers can more easily be informed of what a better choice would be.
Take cereals for example. Seemingly healthy, nearly all found on the supermarket shelf include added sugars. There are a few that don’t, yet they share similar HSR to their sweetened cousins.
Nutrigrain* containing 2.5tsp of added sugar per 40g serve; Just Right* containing 5tsp of added sugar per 40g serve; and Creamy Honey Quick Oats* containing 2tsp of added sugar per 35g serve each get 4 Stars.
Armed with this knowledge, we’ve the power to choose to naturally sweeten products like cereal ourselves, using whole foods like chopped fruit (and get a serve of beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals while you are at it!).
And we can’t forget old mate Milo. On its own, its a pile of sugar fortified with nutrients. As per serving instructions, it’s a pile of sugar fortified with nutrients plus skim milk. The addition of milk shifts the product from a 1.5 HSR to 4 Stars. Hmmm.
“The World Health Organisation and dietary guidelines around the world focus on the problems of added sugars so it’s not at all surprising that using added sugars in the algorithm does a better job,” said co-author Dr Sanne Peters of The George Institute. “The United States has announced a requirement for routine labelling of added sugars and it looks like it would be a good move for Australia too.’’
Let’s hope the Australian Government takes heed of the research and adds added sugars to labels, following suit of many other countries as well as the U.S., for the sake of our nation’s health.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med)
*Amounts and Health Star Ratings correct as at July 2017