More health stars doesn't necessarily mean healthier food

by Jennifer Bowden / 09 September, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Health stars food

Photo/Getty Images

Checking how many health stars food items have is a good habit, but don’t read too much into them.

QUESTIONOn a trip to the supermarket I bought smoked salmon that had health stars. Nutella, I noticed, had 1 star and jam had 2½. That doesn’t seem to make sense. Please explain the star-rating system and whether it takes anything else besides salt and saturated fat into account.

ANSWERThe more stars, the healthier the food”, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) states on its How Health Star Ratings Work web page. However, you’ll need to read the fine print to put that advice into context.

For a start, the health-star ratings system is not designed for the comparison of foods from different categories. So comparing jam’s rating with a fish product’s is meaningless. Instead, the system is for weighing up the merits of products within the same category. So, for example, among nut butters, Nutella scores 1 star but Sanitarium’s peanut butter without added sugar or salt has 4½ stars. Clearly, the peanut butter is healthier than the Nutella.

The system scores foods based on the presence of a limited range of nutrients and ingredients. Energy content, levels of risky nutrients such as saturated fat, sodium and total sugar, the amounts of beneficial components such as dietary fibre and protein and the proportions of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes are taken into account. More points means more stars.

Sanitarium’s peanut butter has 10% of the saturated fat, sugar and sodium of Nutella, which helps explain why it scored more stars.

In the case of salmon, the rating can vary depending on how the fish is processed. Tinned and fresh salmon get 4 stars compared with the cold-smoked variety’s 1½ stars.

Steve Hathaway, MPI’s director of food science and risk assessment, says, “This is largely due to its sodium content. Prior to smoking, salmon is cured in a brine that results in a high sodium content.”

Indeed, cold-smoked salmon has 950mg of sodium per 100g, compared with 52mg in fresh salmon, or 487mg in tinned salmon.

So, by all means check and compare the health-star ratings on foods in the same category. You have a good chance of making a healthier decision if you choose the product with the greater number of stars. But the system tells you nothing useful when comparing dissimilar foods.

This article was first published in the August 25, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


Ian McEwan confronts the biggest mysteries of life in Machines Like Me
105820 2019-05-23 00:00:00Z Books

Ian McEwan confronts the biggest mysteries of life…

by Charlotte Grimshaw

Ian McEwan’s tale of human-robot love links emotional and artificial intelligence in intriguing ways, writes Charlotte Grimshaw.

Read more
Is chemical residue on fruit and vegetables worth worrying about?
105778 2019-05-23 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Is chemical residue on fruit and vegetables worth…

by Jennifer Bowden

The chemical residues on fruit and vegetables are not dangerous, but rinsing is still advisable.

Read more
Tech Week: Tech no substitute for human kindness in healthcare
106277 2019-05-23 00:00:00Z Tech

Tech Week: Tech no substitute for human kindness i…

by Peter Griffin

A three-month trial at Christchurch Hospital saw remarkable results.

Read more
How Auckland Museum's sustainability journey began on the rooftop
106248 2019-05-23 00:00:00Z Planet

How Auckland Museum's sustainability journey began…

by Ken Downie

Until recently, the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s buildings were highly dysfunctional, says John Glen, the museum’s head of building infrastructure.

Read more
Australia's remote islands home to 414 million pieces of plastic pollution
106295 2019-05-23 00:00:00Z Planet

Australia's remote islands home to 414 million pie…

by Noted

More than 230 tonnes of plastic including straws, bags and toothbrushes found on Australian islands.

Read more
Parliament bullying: Mallard urges rape victims to seek support
What drives 'lone wolf' terrorists? And how can we prevent future attacks?
106117 2019-05-22 00:00:00Z Social issues

What drives 'lone wolf' terrorists? And how can we…

by Devon Polaschek, Maryanne Garry and Joe Burton

Violent extremists are often depicted as “lone wolves”. But this belies the broader psychological, social and digital contexts in which they act.

Read more
Counterterrorism experts on why we must engage with online extremists
106123 2019-05-22 00:00:00Z Social issues

Counterterrorism experts on why we must engage wit…

by David Hall

Seeing an NZ flag flying at a neo-fascist rally in Germany prompted David Hall to ask why violent radicalisation was affecting even his fellow Kiwis.

Read more