Recently launched Health Star Rating system can be made more effective and reliable with the support of the existing Nutrition Fact Table.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has recommended the Health Star Rating (HSR) as the new Front-of-Pack (FoP) label for consumer-packaged food in India. It rates the overall nutritional profile of packaged food and beverages and assigns these a rating from ½ a star to 5 stars (the higher the rating, the healthier the product). The stars are determined by Health Star Rating Calculator, which uses nutritional information like total fibre, protein, sugar, sodium, energy to obtain a rating for the product. Points get added for positive nutrients and deducted for unhealthy or risk nutrients. Currently, Australia and New Zealand also use a voluntary HSR labelling system.
FOP labels like HSR, in contrast to the current behind-the-pack nutrition fact tables are simple, graphic representation of nutrition information or nutritional quality of products displayed on the front of food packages. The FOP labelling systems are being promoted globally to promote healthier food choices among consumers, regardless of their levels of education. Internationally, this labelling system has proven to be an effective tool to nudge consumer behaviour towards healthier dietary choices. Given India’s high incidence of malnutrition and non-communicable diseases an effective FOP label could be a powerful tool, accelerating India’s fight against malnutrition.
Expert and research both rally for using a FOP warning label which clearly presents the risk nutrients and their health implications. Several countries are already using warning labels like the nutrition warning signs (Chile) and traffic light labels (UK) which has proven to be effective in nudging people to make healthier food choice. Unlike these, the HSR label is purely evaluative, providing an opinion or a recommendation with no risk warning or factual nutritional information. Some experts have said that the FSSAI recommended HSR labelling system is not suitable for the Indian population. A key concern is how the rating calculator can be manipulated to get a high rating for an unhealthy food product. For example, a packaged fruit juice having high content of added sugar may be rated highly for the presence of fruits (fibre, vitamins), misrepresenting the healthiness or the camouflaging the risk nutrients (high sugar) in the product.
The HSR rating can be made more effective and reliable when supported by the existing Nutrition Fact Table (NFT). The government should mandate the colour coding of the ingredients on the NFT, especially risk nutrients which are near or higher than daily recommended values. Consumers will then have the first glance overview of the nutritional profile through the HSR system, and the colour-coded nutrition NFT will provide a more detailed assessment of what is inside the package.
The concerns for the flawed calculation systems can be offset by ensuring the rating calculator when created for the Indian consumer should use the threshold values of each of the key macro and micronutrients in accordance with the guidelines issued by competent authorities like World Health Organization and FSSAI. The calculator should be rigorously tested with real world healthy and unhealthy packaged products to avoid manipulations showing a higher rating or reduced risk of a nutrient. Given India’s geographic and cultural food diversity the calculator should appropriately accommodate consumed packaged foods produced with locally sourced or consumed ingredients.
Lastly, the impact of the label is not only dependent on the label itself but also food manufacturers and consumers who will be using it. There should be a strong emphasis on capacity building of the packaged food and beverage industry to use the calculator especially since 98% of the food processing sector is informal or unorganized, which would require continuous support and encouragement to use the label judiciously and consistently.
Media campaigns to help consumers identify and understand the rating should be carried out to empower consumers to make informed healthy choices while choosing between similar products. Nutrition literacy and awareness workshops can enable people to develop a healthy relationship with food and can contribute to improving overall health and wellness. Information on beneficial food groups or micronutrients and recommended daily allowances should be properly disseminated for consumers to interact positively with a food label. In addition to media platforms, the government can leverage existing platforms like school textbooks, programmes like POSHAN Abhiyaan and Village Health Sanitation and Nutrition Days (VHSND) to ensure all target populations get access to the correct information.
(Mitul Thapliyal is a partner, Puneet Khanduja leads the health and nutrition practice and Dipanshi Sood is manager at MicroSave Consulting (MSC), a boutique consulting firm working towards financial, social and economic inclusion._