There’s a row of snack bars on the supermarket shelf. Half proudly display health star ratings of three or greater, while the rest are void of the feature.
Food companies are being accused of confusing customers by using the ratings only on their healthiest products, creating a halo effect on the rest of the range.
Muesli business Carman’s, for example, has only slapped the ratings on bars with ratings of three or more, but kept them off the rest, such as its coconut-flavoured Oat Slice, which scores 1.5 stars.
And beverage company Golden Circle has displayed the ratings on a handful of its “no sugar added” fruit juices, but not on others, such as cordials and nectars.
Jane Martin, executive manager of Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC), says companies are using the system selectively and as a promotional tool, and the need to make the ratings mandatory was urgent.
“If the star system isn’t being used comprehensively across all products it makes it harder for consumers to make healthier choices,” she says.
“The system’s been around for 2.5 years and companies know how it operates. Consumers are being kept in the dark.”
She had a particular issue with Kellogg’s LCM products, as some companies have blamed delays on the need to design and rollout new packaging.
While Kellogg’s LCM Oaty Bubble Bars show a rating of 3.5 stars, its Split Stix products, which score as low as 0.5 stars, lack the feature.
“Kellogg recently changed the packaging of its LCM Split Stix to include a free book promotion, and it didn’t use the opportunity to add health stars,” she says.
The system was launched by the federal government in June 2014 to help shoppers compare the nutritional value of food products.
A 2016 Heart Foundation study found that despite increased awareness of the system, fewer people believed it was credible and reliable.
The Health Star Ratings (HSR) Advisory Committee is in the midst of planning a formal five-year review, with a report expected to be delivered in June 2019.
Ms Martin says consumers should be wary of simply relying on the stars, and instead read the nutrition information panel.
OPC questioned why Mother Earth chose to show high ratings on its peanut butter range, but withhold the information on its snack bars.
It also cast the spotlight on juice brands such as Golden Circle and Just Juice, which it says only use the stars on healthier options.
“If the stars are not there, then customers can’t be guided by it when making a choice.”
A Kellogg’s spokesman explained the company had prioritised the launch of its new products, which carry star ratings, such as Special K Bliss Bites, Nutri-Grain Edge Bars and LCMs Oaty Bubble Bars.
“We’ve also made HSR information for all our snacks available on our website since last year,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Carman’s said it was prioritising the new Country of Origin labelling requirements, which, unlike health stars, are mandatory.
“We originally applied HSR in our breakfast range where it now applies to all products. We have commenced within our snacks range,” she says.
“Carman’s intends to roll out HSR across its entire range however a time-frame for this has not been put in place as the system is currently under review and changes to it may be made.”
However Ms Martin revealed that Carman’s told her in an earlier conversation that it wasn’t using the ratings because it didn’t agree with the algorithm.
Golden Circle did not respond to a request for comment. Savvy Consumer – Interact with us on FacebookLatest consumer affairs news