Shoppers are confused and losing confidence in the health star-rating system as new research shows only one in five people always or mostly look at the front-of-pack score.
The Ipsos survey of 2500 Australians found trust levels were higher for other food labels as a third always or mostly viewed the nutrition information panel, a third viewed the ingredients list, and a quarter viewed the daily intake guide.
What Australians are shopping for in 2016
More Australians are steering clear of artificial sweeteners, sugary foods and drinks, and fatty meats and dairy products in the supermarket.
Public health nutritionist Rosemary Stanton said the widespread uptake of the system by breakfast cereal companies and the low penalty given to sugar had lowered shopper confidence in the ratings.
“When Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain was reformulated and reduced its sugar to 26.7 per cent, which is still absurdly high, it got four stars,” she said.
Aine Markey, with Wren and Kit, says it’s worth paying more for taste and quality when it comes to fruit and vegetables. Photo: Daniel Munoz
“People can see through that, and the fact sugar now tops the list of interest may be causing many shoppers to reject any system that grants four stars to a product with so much sugar.”
She said health star ratings were meant to replace the food industry’s daily intake guide. Multiple food labels on packaging were confusing customers.
The research showed that, much more than health labels, the biggest factor influencing purchase decisions at the supermarket was taste, followed by the everyday price, discount and healthiness.
“The household budget is, of course, a consideration, but taste is the highest priority,” said Kathy Benson, research director at Ipsos. “People just aren’t willing to compromise on the taste.”
The Ipsos research showed taste was a bigger influence than everyday and discounts prices on grocery shoppers. Photo: Getty Images
Retail expert Gary Mortimer from Queensland University of Technology said grocery shopping was a low-involvement, routine task that had shoppers looking for simple cues to help them make quick decisions.
“We’re basing our decision on previous purchase history, like what we’ve eaten and tasted, on the brand, because they’re promoted so strongly, and then we look at the price,” he said.
The federal government will spend $5.3 million on promoting health star ratings in the next two years.
While the top purchase influencers were in harmony with existing consumer research, Dr Mortimer questioned the finding that packaging had the least amount of impact on buying decisions.
“Experiments have shown, if you give someone an unpackaged and premium-packaged biscuit, they think the packaged one tastes better, even though they’re the same,” he said.
He said the data most likely reflected a “response bias”, when survey respondents didn’t realise the power of packaging.
“I’d say they were initially drawn by the packaging but, because they’ve trialled and become loyal to a product, routinely and habitually buying it, they’re no longer affected by it,” he said.
Mother-of-two Aine Markey, from Randwick, said she tended to buy groceries based on price, but not when it came to fruit and vegetables.
“They say ‘buy cheap, buy twice’, but I find cheaper fruits and vegetables go off quicker or they’re drier,” said Ms Markey, mother of Wren, aged three, and Kit, aged 13 months. “Taste and quality are worth paying for.”
Concerning the health star rating, Rural Health Minister Fiona Nash said the two-year-old system was working and ratings now appeared on 3000 products and public awareness was more than 50 per cent.
The government will inject an extra $5.3 million in the next two years to promote the system, which is up for review this year.
“The Coalition government isn’t in the business of dictating diet to Australians but we can give them the tools to make healthier choices and that’s what we’ve done,” she said.
Earlier this year, consumer group Choice accused Nestle and Kellogg of using the star-ratings system to “health-wash” their products, after Nestle’s Milo drinks displayed 4.5 stars, based on it being prepared with skim milk. On its own, Milo is only rated 1.5 stars.
A Nestle spokeswoman said the rating was appropriate because Milo was regularly consumed with a glass of skim milk.
Dr Stanton said the system needed to be tweaked to restore confidence. “I wouldn’t allow it on drinks or snack foods,” she said.
Mark Lawrence, professor in public health nutrition at Deakin University, also said ratings should not be used for treat foods.
“We should put warnings on discretionary foods,” he said.