The good oil on the war against junk food

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Lisa Rowntree, CEO of the Australian Olive Association agrees. “At the very end we support this new Health Star Rating system, we think it’s a good initiative to do something like that but it’s almost like it’s been done too quickly and they haven’t really thought about some of the more complicated areas of health. And I think they really need to take on board what the industry is telling them and revaluate how they’re doing it.”

Today the HSR advisory committee is in Melbourne meeting with Victorian food manufacturers to talk about the roll-out of the labelling system and discuss concerns with what are called “anomalies”. McGavin should probably not hold his breath for change, judging by comments provided this week to The Age from the Federal Department of Health. “The front of pack labelling oversight advisory committee is in the process of developing a mechanism to deal with anomalies,” said a spokeswoman for the Department. “The HSR advisory committee recently considered a submission regarding the treatment of olive oil by the HSR calculator, and again found that the calculator is producing technically accurate results.”

Ultimately, the government wants us to make healthier food choices and the HSR system gives consumers a relatively simple tool for understanding the nutritional value of food products. It should be used in conjunction with the Australian Dietary Guidelines, it argues, “one of the key sources of information for consumers regarding overall nutrition.” Meanwhile, an accompanying social marketing education campaign is also close to being finalised.

At the University of Melbourne, Dr Gyorgy Scrinis, a lecturer in Food and Nutrition Politics and Policy, spends a lot of time closely following the politics of food. He’s the author of Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, whose central thesis is that by breaking down food into individual nutrients we narrow and in some cases distort our appreciation of food quality, so even highly processed foods may look healthy depending on their content of “good” or “bad” nutrients. In short, perhaps we can’t see the forest for the trees.

He characterises the current proliferation of health and nutrition logos, claims and counter-claims as a battle between food companies on the one hand, and government regulators and public health experts on the other. Instead of simply disallowing all of food companies’ nutrition and health claims, he says, the HSR system is an attempt by government regulators to balance these claims out with counter-messages indicating the relative healthfulness of foods.

“The goal of providing some sort of qualitative indicator of food quality on the front of the pack is a worthwhile one,” he says. “But these interpretive labelling systems are only as good as the criteria they use to evaluate and rate foods.”

Because the HSR system has a reductive focus on a few nutrients and food components it does create anomalies, he says, noting that some highly processed foods score relatively highly compared with minimally processed foods.

“Margarine is essentially heavily processed vegetable oil with a range of additives, yet scores about the same number of stars as olive oil, which is usually minimally processed. And some high sugar breakfast cereals may score up around 4 stars,” he says. “An alternative would be to include other criteria for determining how a food has been processed, and how that form of processing may have either reduced and degraded, or else enhanced, the nutritional quality of a food product.”

Issues arising from government health labelling systems is not isolated to Australia. In June last year Britain launched a similar “traffic light” health rating system, which labels food red, amber or green depending on their fat, salt and sugar content. The London Telegraph reported that Italy then complained to the European Union over the labelling system’s treatment of several foods it traditionally produces, including Parmesan cheese, salami, prosciutto ham and high-grade olive oil – all receive “high risk” red lights – putting at risk some €200 million (A$286 million) in lost sales). Then, according to an AFP story in March, Italy’s Agriculture Minister Maurizio Martina vowed to use his country’s current turn as EU president to pursue a campaign against the British labelling laws.

“We consider this kind of labelling simplistic and misleading for consumers,” said a spokesman representing Italian food producers. “We remind consumers that there is no such thing as good or bad food, just good or bad diets.”

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