The good oil on the war against junk food

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Lucinda Hancock, an accredited nutritionist and the Victorian executive officer of Nutrition Australia, the country’s peak nutrition education body, says she understands the broad aim of the Health Star Rating but is concerned that the formula doesn’t give as much attention to the positive nutritional value of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, nor the level of processing an item has undergone.

“There is a lot of evidence that supports the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil,” she says, “and as such it would be good to see extra virgin olive oil achieve a higher star rating.”
A more sanguine view on the HSR system and extra virgin olive oil comes from Alan Barclay, an accredited practising dietitian and spokesman for the Dietitians Association of Australia, the nation’s peak body for dietetic and nutrition professionals.

“It’s a bit of a surprise but there are anomalies in the system … and there will be more,” he says, adding that it’s important to keep everything in perspective. “Nobody’s expecting the Health Star Rating system to be the be-all and end-all to chronic disease prevention or helping slow the tide of obesity, for example. It’s just one simple tool in the toolbox and, generally speaking, we do think it’s a good idea.”

Barclay notes that rather than being built from scratch the HSR system was adapted from the 2013 Nutrition Health and Related Claim legislation, which might explain the anomalies that appear. He also stresses the voluntary nature of the system and that consumers will still be able to check mandatory nutrition information panels. “Lastly, the market research shows, as I think most of us understand, that actually price and taste are the two primary drivers of people’s food-purchasing decisions and health tends to be third on the rung. A lot of people – me included – would much prefer an extra virgin olive oil to a canola oil, for instance, because it has that nice, rich flavour.”

The system may, for the time being, be voluntary but olive oil producers such as Rob McGavin feel compelled to be involved, seeing it as an issue of trust with consumers.
“We’re trusted – Cobram is trusted,” he says. “And if we don’t put it on it means you’re hiding something, in the end. It’s important that they get it right in the fats and oils category – or don’t do it all.”

Back at Laharum Olive Grove, this is the first Deirdre Baum has heard of the HSR system. She seems nonplussed. It will be a few years before their trees are ready to produce enough for a bottling run but supermarkets aren’t really their thing, anyway.

“When we get back to production and we’re in retail we’re in more niche-type stores,” she says, “whether they be organic stores or delicatessens.”

“We also have a big presence in farmers markets and there we’re dealing directly with consumers. That, in my opinion overrides everything because we’re speaking directly with the customer. They know where it’s coming from and, I guess, the benefits of the oil they’re buying.”

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