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Health Star ratings under fire as bottled water scores just two stars

Experts are calling for an urgent review of New Zealand’s Health Star Rating system with new research showing unsweetened bottled water products are unable to rate more than two stars.

The Health Star Rating programme is a Government backed trans-Tasman system developed in collaboration with public health experts, the food industry and consumer groups.

None of the sparkling water products on NZ supermarket shelves analysed using the Health Star criteria rated higher than two stars - despite not having any sugar content at all according new data from SodaStream.

At the same time, some beverages which are significantly higher in sugar can receive over four Health Stars.

AUT Professor of Public Health Grant Schofield says New Zealand’s Health Star ratings are sending the wrong message to consumers.

“The Health Star Rating system is a nonsense, it confuses consumers. You can you have natural products like; water, milk, butter and cheese rating lower than highly processed sugary foods.”

Prof Schofield says the current system is designed to support the food manufacturing industry and leaves consumers bewildered by what they should be eating.

“Big food does what big tobacco does, it creates confusion,” he says.

He says the problem with the algorithm is that it under-emphasises the impact of sugar on the body .

Prof Schofield says while more than 3,900 supermarket products have Health Stars on their labels, the voluntary nature of the scheme may contribute to the challenges facing consumers.

“In addition to being confusing, manufacturer adherence to the programme is not mandatory which may make it difficult for shoppers to evaluate the merits of one product over another.

“It’s ridiculous that a product like plain bottled water only has two stars, drinking water in its natural state is a normal human habit, it’s what we’ve done since we inhabited the planet.

“We need better labelling, I’m not saying ban sugar, I’m just asking for consumers to be made aware of how much is in their products so they can make an informed choice.” he says.

Prof Schofield says a new nationwide survey of more than 1,000 New Zealanders, also commissioned by Sodastream, shows four in every ten (39%) Kiwis are confused by food labelling. He believes inconsistencies in the Health Star rating system are adding to this.

“It was worrying to see that confusion over labelling was even higher among some of our most vulnerable communities, including those that have disproportionately higher rates of obesity and diabetes, such as low income households (47%) and Maori (44%),” he says.

Professor Schofield is calling for compulsory front-of-pack labelling of all free sugars on packaged products.

SodaStream NZ spokesperson Shannon Zaloum says they collected nutritional panel information from all of the bottles of unflavoured sparkling water on New Zealand supermarket shelves that were available.

The information from the nutritional information panels on the water products was then entered into the Health Star Rating calculator on the government’s MPI website to determine the Health Star Rating.

“The low star rating on some plain water products in supermarkets suggests the product is unhealthy when in fact water and sparkling water is relatively low cost, readily available and doesn’t contain any kilojoules. It is the best liquid for hydrating your body,” says Zaloum.

She says more than 400,000 thousand Kiwis own a SodaStream appliance which mixes carbon dioxide (CO2) and water to create sparkling water - which contains no calories or sugar.

“SodaStream sparkling water contains no calories or sugar and by using it you’re helping save the planet by eliminating the need for single use plastic bottles,” she says.

Guidelines from the World Health Organization say women and men should consume 2.2-2.9 litres of water per day or 4.5 litres if there are additional losses through perspiration.

[1].[1] Howard G, Bartram J. Domestic Water Quantity, Service, Level and Health. World Health Organization, 2003. Ref Type: Report

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