By Peter FitzSimons, Sydney Morning Herald

‘It’s freaking hopeless’: why the Health Star Rating System has to go

It is time for our government to take strong action against the scourge of our times, the appalling and terrifying phenomenon that is wiping out innocents from all walks of life, devastating families and leaving lives in ruins.

I refer, of course, to …

You thought I was going to say terrorism? Uh, no. On Australian soil – which is to say the territory the Australian government can most easily control – our country has lost fewer people to terrorism since September 11 than we lose in a day to the ravages of obesity-related conditions.

Last week the government announced it would be conducting a review of its Health Star Rating System on food products, which, as you know, is meant to be the official guide as to just how healthy a product is, by virtue of the number of stars it displays on the package. If it gets five out of five stars, it’s top of the pops and, you’d assume, so healthy you’ll be dangerous. Half a star, though, and drop it like poison.

So, a review, of this system we’ve had for the last three years? Great!

Can I go first? It is freaking hopeless. Get rid of it. Call in Joe’s Bulldozers and start again.

Why? Look, I could write a 10,000 word dissertation on how Big Food and Big Sugar have wrapped their tentacles and exerted their influence around what should be an entirely independent process, but do you need to know much more than the following?

Under the system, straight milk gets four stars, while Up & Go – with added, to use the specialised term – gunk – gets four and a half stars! Low-fat strawberry flavoured milk also gets four and a half stars! Some packets of chips even get four stars!

But packaged smoked salmon? Let’s give that three and a half stars, while plain natural Greek yoghurt falls away to one and half stars. The Coles brand beer-battered frozen steak house chips get four stars. Milo, which is just under half sugar, gets four and half stars. Nutri-Grain, which is about a third sugar, gets four stars. Commercial fruit juice, depending on the brand, gets between four and five stars. And yet the World Health Organisation classifies fruit juice as containing “free” sugars that need to be restricted. So while as reputable an organisation as WHO says, “Don’t drink it, Freddie”, in Australia the government says it is about the healthiest thing you can drink. Bullshit. Water is.

All up, notice a trend here?

While the science is in, and there is no doubt that the healthiest option is to choose simple, unprocessed food over processed food with endless crap added, the current Health Star system steers the masses from the edge of the supermarket where you can get the fresh products of Australian farmers to the long aisles where you get the products of Big Food and Big Sugar.

I repeat. Milo! Four and a half stars! Get it into your kids! And you know what, if I put strawberry-flavoured milk on their Nutri-Grain and sprinkle it with Milo they will surely be BURSTING with good health.

How did the system get so corrupted?

Broadly, because its foundations are so flaky.

Let’s start with the fact that the food industry sits on the freaking advisory panel! Yup, I know. Ludicrous. The food industry is driven by the desire for sales, so why would they be given input to determining a scale which should be driven by health only?

The system is predicated on the notion that these stars are not handed out in a measure of overall health, but only how they measure up against other products in their food group. Say no more. This, too, is some explanation for the absurd results, but no excuse. And if your product doesn’t measure up, no worries. You don’t have to play because …

The Health Star Rating System is not mandatory. You can just opt out! Seriously? Whoever thought this was a good idea? If only, back at school, when I knew I was going to get a bad report card, I could just have said: “Don’t send it to my parents!”.

The system is based on nutrients, not whole foods. This is where it gets so complicated it would kill a brown dog, but to come up with their stars, they use an algorithm based on a handful of nutrient-based criteria – and among other flaws that algorithm doesn’t pinpoint added sugar as the being the prime health indicator. In the words of Dr Kieron Rooney, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Sydney: “The HSR is not much more than a marketing tool for industry. Check out the blurb on the side of an Up and Go, which proudly coerces one to consume on the basis of its 4.5 stars. Look at the long list of ingredients – with at least four sources of added sugars. This is an ultra-processed industrialised product and not as the HSR and marketers would have you believe – a healthy alternative to eating a simple, unprocessed breakfast.”

Therein, another problem. The algorithm takes no account of the amount of processing a food has gone through before it gets into that package before it gets to you. In the Brazilian system, that is the prime indicator of a food’s health.

Look, you’re right. I am not a medical expert and please see your doctor if pain persists. But having lost 45 kilos fairly easily after years of yo-yo dieting seeing my weight increase year by year – and writing a slim volume on my own suddenly slim volume – I really was shocked by how damn easy it is to lose weight and be healthy once you grasp a few basic concepts and live them. The first one is that it’s all about the sugar, idiot. If you cut that out of your food – another way of saying stop eating processed food because just about all of it is chokka with sugar – your hunger falls away. Any health star system that doesn’t identify added sugar as the prime culprit is not serious.

And the thing that stunned me, once I went into it, is how corrupted so much of the whole health infrastructure is in this country. The very things set up to guide us poor muddle-headed muppets on which way to head are steering us in the wrong direction. The Health Star system is just a part of it. The government needs to start again, and rebuild from the ground up, getting input from medical professionals only.

But I’ll be in my trailer if you need me.

Peter FitzSimons is a Fairfax columnist and author of The Great Aussie Bloke Slim Down.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

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