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.


Brexit: What does it mean for NZ trade?
101342 2019-01-17 11:06:05Z Economy

Brexit: What does it mean for NZ trade?

by RNZ

Brexit: Theresa May survives no-confidence vote but what does that mean for NZ trade?

Read more
How the unleashed power of technology has radically changed U.S ideals
101292 2019-01-17 00:00:00Z World

How the unleashed power of technology has radicall…

by Anthony Byrt

These Truths is a noble attempt to counter the collective attention-deficit syndrome Zuckerberg and his pals have created in all of us.

Read more
Tiny Ruins gives us reasons to be cheerful on new album Olympic Girls
Catherine Lacey's Certain American States is America as black comedy
101259 2019-01-17 00:00:00Z Books

Catherine Lacey's Certain American States is Ameri…

by Charlotte Grimshaw

It's a matter of taste, the degree to which readers can tolerate the harshness of these stories.

Read more
Dopesick: A humanising look at America's opioid epidemic
101276 2019-01-17 00:00:00Z Books

Dopesick: A humanising look at America's opioid ep…

by Russell Brown

Drug companies have a lot to answer for in regard to America’s opioid crisis, as Beth Macy's new book Dopesick reveals.

Read more
The psychological problems with trigger warnings
101153 2019-01-17 00:00:00Z Psychology

The psychological problems with trigger warnings

by Marc Wilson

The suggestion that you’re about to be exposed to something unpleasant can actually make it worse.

Read more
Why the SPCA aren't completely wrong about 1080 poison
101325 2019-01-17 00:00:00Z Planet

Why the SPCA aren't completely wrong about 1080 po…

by The Listener

In its advocacy against 1080 poison, the SPCA has fallen out of step with this country’s conservation priorities, but they have a point.

Read more
'If NZ stopped importing fabric and clothing, we’d be fine'
101236 2019-01-16 09:00:15Z Planet

'If NZ stopped importing fabric and clothing, we’d…

by RNZ

Christchurch designer Steven Junil says clothing, once considered precious, has now become disposable.

Read more