On 15 February, the conference hall of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) hosted a meeting that could have serious consequences on the overall health of India’s population. The latest in a series of fiercely contested discussions fiercely contested discussions The Ken How junk food giants took on a toothless FSSAI and won Read more , the meeting was meant to achieve consensus on how best to label packaged food to help consumers make healthier choices.

While previous meetings were deadlocked, this time, the FSSAI had an ace up its sleeve. A team of professors from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A) were ushered in to discuss the results of a pan-India survey. The survey was to identify what sort of labelling most effectively conveyed nutritional information. Having polled 20,564 respondents, the team from IIM-A pointed to one clear winner—Health Star Ratings, or HSR.

HSR rates foods on a five-star scale based on factors such as energy, saturated fat, sodium, total sugar, and healthier aspects such as protein, natural ingredients, and the like. The final rating is decided by an algorithm that takes into account all this, with healthier food receiving higher ratings. These would be displayed on the front of the packaging.

India isn’t alone in going the HSR route. Australia, too, adopted the HSR system as far back as 2014. But despite the Australian government’s best intentions, things haven’t quite gone to plan.

Mark Lawrence, professor of public health nutrition at Deakin University in Australia, told The Ken that 73% of ultra-processed food on supermarket shelves displayed ratings of 2.5 stars or higher. Effectively, said Lawrence,  who studied the star rating implementation, the ratings failed to convey anything of value—nutrition-wise—to the consumer.

Worse, HSR also created a ‘health halo’ effect, which is the perception that a particular food is good for you even when there is little or no evidence to back this. Indeed, there were numerous instances numerous instances The New Daily Ultra-processed foods are ultra bad for us. These are the worst offenders Read more  where decidedly unhealthy products received the highest possible health rating.

In Australia, products like Diet Coke (loaded with artificial sweeteners) and 'no sugar' gummy candies received four and five stars respectively, while a pack of olives received one star, and free range eggs received four stars. Picture Credit - Mark Lawrence


Despite this precedent—or perhaps because of it—there was widespread support for the HSR approach among the 23 stakeholders present at the FSSAI meeting.

AUTHOR

Maitri Porecha

Maitri writes about everything health for The Ken. For close to 10 years now, she has navigated hospital corridors in her search for a good story. In a past life, when she was not a journalist, she used to teach French at her neighbourhood school. Also an avid fan of forensics, she is always up for decoding mysteries in her free time.

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