The good oil on the war against junk food

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Meanwhile, back in the city, another challenge is looming for Baum and other extra virgin olive oil producers like her. On June 27 the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation, made up of Commonwealth, state, territory and New Zealand food ministers, announced the official beginning of a new food labelling initiative, known as the Health Star Rating (HSR) system. Similar in look to those energy rating stickers you see on washing machines and fridges, it’s designed to give consumers an accurate picture of what’s inside their breakfast cereal packets and snack bars – specifically, the energy, saturated fat, sugars, sodium and nutrient content. Food is divided into six categories and products are given star ratings out of five for their health and nutritional value (fresh fruit and vegetables are exempt).

Sanitarium and Woolworths were among the first to sign-up to the voluntary five-year scheme, which will be reviewed in 2016.

Health professionals regard it generally as positive news in the fight against obesity and a strike back by regulators against the confusing proliferation of (often dubious) health and nutritional claims made on food packaging.

And, given earlier controversy when the HSR website was abruptly taken down by the Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash and her then-chief of staff, Alastair Furnival, who Fairfax Media reported had links to the junk food industry, those close to it must be particularly pleased that it’s made it this far.

But when extra virgin olive oil producers ran their product – long associated with the healthy Mediterranean diet – through the HSR calculator many were surprised and alarmed by how low it scored. On par with heavily processed margarine at 3.5, extra virgin olive oil scored half a star worse than canola oil, a much cheaper and highly refined alternative.

Leading the olive oil revolt is Rob McGavin, CEO of Victorian companies Cobram Estate and Boundary Bend, which grows and supplies 65 per cent of the country’s olive oil stocks, making it the largest producer in Australia.

“It just makes me so mad,” says McGavin, who earlier this month wrote to his local MP Andrew Broad after fruitless submissions to the Federal Health Department. “The current system is, in our view, wrongly showing that other oils that are half the price have more stars than extra virgin olive oil. It’s pretty simple, really.”

McGavin says the system doesn’t take into account the health benefits of extracting fats and oils mechanically (by pressing) compared to refining processes, which generally apply heat and chemicals. Also, the system only looks at saturated fat, without taking into account others including trans fat, mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. This shows a fundamental flaw, he argues, throwing doubt over the system’s credibility as a whole.

“I mean, it just doesn’t pass the smell test.”

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