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Goodbye Tick, hello Stars

Goodbye Tick

The National Heart Foundation of Australia is retiring its Tick Program after 26 years (the New Zealand Heart Foundation Tick Program is continuing). Now that Nutrition Information Panels are mandatory and front of pack labelling is firmly established on the food agenda, the Heart Foundation Board felt it was time to focus on its next innovations that will help all Australians lead healthier lives. The Program leaves quite a public health legacy. Research carried out by the Tick Program found the Tick was the most recognised logo on food, appearing on over 2000 products in over 80 food categories. It has achieved significant improvements in the food supply as a result of manufacturers reformulating products to meet nutrient criteria.

Hello stars

The Australian and New Zealand Governments have endorsed the Health Star Rating System (HSR) as the front-of-pack labelling (FOPL) system for packaged food. Products are rated between half a star and five stars according to their nutrition content: the healthier the product, the more stars it earns. The scheme is currently optional for food companies but has had steady uptake by major food manufacturers so far- the HSR rating now appears on over 1500 products. It is hoped that food manufacturers will improve the nutritional composition of products in order to earn more stars.

What have we lost?

With the Tick retiring, we have lost a certified front of pack label used by over 2.8 million Australians every day and the experienced Tick team of nutrition and technical experts responsible for implementing Tick's nutrient criteria. The program was an excellent example of collaboration between health professional advocates and the food industry that created real public health impact. While the Tick was seen an effective marketing tool by food companies, the HSR does not yet have the same attraction.

We've also lost some external accountability of food marketers. The HSR does not require the same level of independent rigour as the Tick.

Differences between the Tick Program and the Health Star Rating

The Tick Program requirements

Health Star Rating

Manufacturers submitted independent nutrition analyses from an accredited laboratory

Manufacturers submit their own nutrition information on the HSR website

All marketing materials checked for compliance with Food Standards Code and Australian Consumer Law

Manufacturers monitor their own compliance

Independent auditing to ensure foods continue to meet the Tick standards over time

Manufacturers change HSR when product formulations change

Tick nutrient criteria regularly reviewed to keep pace with changing food supply

Plans to update algorithm not yet known

80 sets of nutrient criteria to target variety of food categories

6 sets of criteria algorithms to cover all processed foods (3 are for dairy foods)


What will we gain?

While the Tick required a license fee to use the logo (for program administration), the HSR does not, and perhaps this will encourage small-medium food businesses to start using front-of-pack labelling. The HSR calculator is superior to Traffic Light Labelling schemes used overseas in that it is not based simply on the absence of fat, sugar and salt, but on an algorithm that offsets negative food components with positive ones. Points are deducted based on the content of saturated fat, sodium, energy (kilojoules) and total sugars (risk nutrients); and points are added for positive components- protein, dietary fibre, fruit, vegetable, nut and legume content, and calcium content for some products.

Where does sugar fit?

The Tick attracted criticism for the absence of sugar criteria. The Heart Foundation Australia maintained there was insufficient evidence for direct harm from sugar and instigated an energy limit per serve instead that acted as a proxy for foods high in added sugars. Two categories which contribute to the amount of sugar in our diet, particularly in teens, are sugar-sweetened drinks and confectionery such as lollies. The Tick did not have categories for these foods as there is limited potential for making them healthier and they make minimal contribution to nutrient intake, unlike other core foods that provide beneficial nutrients such as dairy foods and breakfast cereals. Conversely, the New Zealand Tick Program re-introduced a sugar criteria in 2015 for breakfast cereals and nut and seed bars . This was to better align with Ministry of Health guidelines, the updated WHO guidelines and to keep the tick consistent and relevant to consumers. The two tick program will also continue in New Zealand to help consumers identify healthy 'core' foods.

Although the HSR was not designed for fresh produce, we are seeing some manufacturers voluntarily use it on packaged fresh, tinned or frozen fruit and vegetables. The HSR includes total sugars in its algorithm and as a result, foods high in natural sugars such as some fresh fruits do not achieve the highest 5-star rating and why fresh grapes have a lower star rating than strawberries. Yet it also awards fruit juices 4 or 5 stars when the Dietary Guidelines say to limit juice because they provide kilojoules but no dietary fibre and may contribute to increased risk of dental erosion. The HSR will be reviewed over time to minimise any unintended adverse impacts on food choices and potential anomalies can be reported to the Health Star Rating Advisory Committee.

Find out more about Health Star Rating at www.healthstarrating.gov.au

NEXT: Food and dental health 

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