Consumers are being urged to read ‘no-added sugar’ labels and health star ratings with cautionas they do not always reflect the true healthiness of a product, a nutrition scientist says.
Otago University nutrition scientist Lisa Te Morenga said one of the issues with labelling was that added sugars were not chemically different to sugars naturally occurring in foods, which made it difficult to distinguish between added and naturally occurring sugars in a laboratory.
She said the star rating was an imperfect guideline for consumers.
“While it allows consumers to make better choices for products in the same category, consumers should still use some skepticism to avoid being hoodwinked by the big brands,” Te Morenga said.
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For example, a 290 gram box of Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain cereal contains 77g of added sugar. Yet, it boasts four health stars. Te Morenga said the fibre content in Nutri-Grain boosted the rating.
Similarly, Consumer NZ found Nestle calculates Milo’s 4.5 star rating based on mixing three teaspoons of the chocolate powder with skim milk. The milk increased the number of stars, but Milo on its own scores 1.5 stars.
Ministry of Primary Industries found consumer trust in the $2 million taxpayer-funded Health Star Rating has been dropping.
The star rating system was launched in 2014 and a two-year review by the ministry found there was a slight decrease in trust from 40 per cent to 39 per cent.
Te Morenga said the Government’s health star rating has been a compromise for consumers giving food companies more leeway for calculating ihealth stars for their products.
“Designing health star ratings is complicated, but the problem is that companies can boost their star ratings by increasing the fibre in their products, for instance.”
Te Morenga said ‘no added sugar’ masked fruit sugars, purees and concentrates, which the body still processed as sugar.
There are at least 42 different names used on food labels for added sugar including sucrose, muscavado and turbinado.
Te Morenga said adding the World Health Organisation’s ‘free sugar’ category which includes fruit sugars in added sugar, to the health star rating system could be a step towards counting extra sugar in packaged foods.
In Australia researchers analysed more than 34,000 products and found 70 per cent contained added sugars, which they say are simply “empty calories” contributing to the obesity epidemic.
Australian consumer advocacy group Choice found that if consumers could identify added sugars on food packs they could avoid 26 teaspoons of sugar each day and up to 38.3 kilograms a year.