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Food labels have minor impact

Nutrition labels showcasing healthy foods have no significant impact on New Zealanders' food choices, according to latest research.

"Their effect is pretty small and limited to shoppers already interested in healthy eating," says leading nutrition expert, Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu of the University of Auckland.

However, labels affect industry behaviour, with most labelled products reformulated to make them healthier (e.g. less salt, more fibre) as a result of adoption.

Ni Mhurchu, who headed research into the labels - known as Health Star Ratings (HSR) - says just over one in 10 of the 15,000+ packaged products on supermarket shelves carry the labels, making it difficult to create mass public awareness.

She believes the slow uptake by the food industry is because use of the labels is voluntary: "In my view, we need to get the number up to over half of all products - even two-thirds - to really make a difference.

"If we don't, then then I think we should look at making HSR mandatory."

Research into the labels - first used three years ago - was led by Ni Mhurchu through the Health Research Council-funded DIET programme. It involved 1357 New Zealand shoppers using their smartphones to scan food products in supermarkets.

Run over a year between October 2014 and November 2015, it found the labels had "no significant effect" on food purchases, although those who did use them liked the system, found them useful and easy to understand.

Backed by both the New Zealand and Australian governments, HSR offers shoppers a simpler way of determining the healthiness of packaged food than the detailed small print of traditional Nutrition Information Panels – a method many find difficult to read and understand.

HSR uses a star rating scale to measure nutrition content and healthiness. Ratings range from half a star to five stars (the more stars, the healthier the food) and is to be reviewed by both governments by the end of 2019.

More at NZ Herald

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