‘They don’t realise how unhealthy they are’: Fast foods rated in major new study
We are, quite literally, wasting our energy on junk.
“Fast food is now an important contributor to intake of dietary salt, sugar, saturated fat and energy,” say the authors of a new report calling for the health star rating system (HSR) to be extended to fast foods.
In fact, fast foods account for as much as a half of our daily energy intake, but less than a quarter of the micronutrients.
“Fast food labelling is restricted to kilojoule labelling,” said co-author of the study, published in the journal Appetite, Professor Bruce Neal of the food policy division at The George Institute.
But, he says, people “really struggle” with kilojoule labelling.
“They don’t understand it and it only addresses one aspect of the healthiness or unhealthiness of foods,” Neal said. “The heath star rating is more easily understood, it’s more comprehensive and there’s heaps to be said about having one system across the board to help people understand and make better choices.”
For the study, Neal and his colleagues calculated the HSR of between 0.5 and 5 for 1529 fast foods using an algorithm based on energy, saturated fat, total sugar, sodium, fibre and protein.
The average HSR for fast foods was low at 2.5, with Subway and Oporto considered the “healthiest” fast food outlets with an average HSR of 3.4 across their menus.
Gloria Jean’s cafe came out worst with an average HSR of 2 stars, followed by McCafe (2.1 stars) and Muffin Break (2.2 stars).
Given that the HSR system is voluntary, it is unlikely that many fast food outlets will jump on board. Neal says that although making the system mandatory will “certainly not” happen in the next six months, they hope their research will open up a discussion about the possibility of implementing it down the track.
As for whether the rating system might dupe people into thinking fast foods are healthier than they are, Neal said: “In general, the system works quite well and people don’t get tricked. The intent really, if you have a labelling system like this and it’s mandatory, is to stop people getting tricked.
“At the moment as a food manufacturer you can print, not quite anything on your packaging, but you can print a lot of stuff and make things look quite different to what they actually are. The intent is to try and bring transparency.”
The intent may be good, but the system is still flawed and has faced understandably harsh criticism.
Take French fries, for example, which had an average rating of 3.6 stars. How is this possible? Because they contain “fruit and vegetable content”.
“That’s definitely one of the areas that needs addressing in terms of how the algorithms works. We’re working hard on this at the moment,” Neal explained.
“The really big example is added sugars. At the moment, the algorithm that underpins the health star rating works on the basis of total sugars, so it doesn’t differentiate between natural sugars that you might get in milk versus added sugar that you might get in confectionary.”
He says a “clear fix” would be to put added sugars into the algorithm, rather than to use total sugars.
“You could do massively better if you just switched around aspects of the algorithm and there are a bunch of like fixes that would make it do so much better,” Neal said, adding that the system is due for a review and it is hoped to fine-tune the algorithm then.
Another big problem is the way the system is set up versus the way most of us might use it.
If I walk into a supermarket and use the HSR to try to make healthier choices, I am not going to consider that the products are scored within categories. Based on this, for my “health”, I may well choose a strawberry-flavoured milk (HSR of 4.5) over a packaged smoked salmon fillet (3.5 stars).
It is shocking that this is possible for a system designed to help us improve our health and it is not lost on Neal.
“There’s a clear problem with some of the products which get implausibly good HS ratings,” he admitted. “When the system was set up there was a lot of lobbying about setting up these different groups so different foods could be assessed in different ways and frankly I think that’s wrong … there is no reason you couldn’t have one algorithm so you can make comparisons across all different types of foods – I think that’s absolutely where we need to be going.”
Still, he believes in the system and insists that there is more right with it than wrong. If it were to be made mandatory, Big Food wouldn’t get to put ratings only on their healthier options.
“People know that a lot of fast foods aren’t especially healthy, but I think that they probably don’t realise how unhealthy they are and it would be an extra impetus to them to think twice before they made a purchase if they saw half a star or one star,” Neal said.
“The key thing we want people to know is the system is pretty good, it’s imperfect, absolutely, but it gets it right the majority of the time for packaged foods and it will do the same thing for fast food.”
Diet-related ill-health and obesity are the leading causes of premature death and disability in Australia. We need to try to do something that is simple and easy for people to understand.
“At the moment we have really got nothing that on a day-to-day basis that helps people make better food choices,” Neal said, “and we really need that so we hope people get behind the idea.”
This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald
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