Researchers at the Sydney health and medical research institute analysed more than 1,500 products from 13 leading chains, including Gloria Jean’s, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s, to find out if the food labelling system could be applied to fast-food items.
The results, published in the journal Appetite, revealed the average HSR for fast foods was low at 2.5.
Subway and Oporto performed best with an average HSR of 3.4 across their menus. The worst performing chain was Gloria Jean’s, with an average of 2.0 stars, followed by McCafé (2.1 stars) and Muffin Break (2.2 stars).
The study’s author, Elizabeth Dunford, said extending the HSR to fast food restaurants would help Australians make healthier food choices.
“We already have kilojoule labelling in large chain restaurants across much of Australia, but that only tells consumers about energy content. Health star ratings, on the other hand, assess the full nutritional make up of a product, which is much more important health wise,” she said, adding that many consumers still struggle to use kilojoule labelling.
‘’Exactly as for packaged foods, what we found is that even in the worst performing chains, there are healthier alternatives, and the HSR would make them identifiable at a glance if it was required on the menu board.”
The HSR scheme was introduced in 2014 to rate supermarket foods from 0.5 to 5 stars based on their kilojoule and saturated fat, sugar, sodium, protein, fibre and fruit and vegetable content.
By applying the same system to fast foods, the George Institute study found 42% of all products assigned 0.5 stars came from Muffin Break alone, including its affogato drink, Anzac biscuit and chocolate mousse cake.
Unsurprisingly, desserts performed badly across the board with an average 0.5 stars. The results also revealed that cafe-style chains had lower average HSRs than burger and pizza chains. Chicken and sandwich chains fared the best.
“When you look at the range of foods in the likes of Muffin Break, McCafé and Gloria Jean’s… some of the cakes on sale contained in just one serve close to half the energy intake the average Australian needs in a day,” Dr Dunford added.
“Consumers aren’t stupid, they know cakes aren’t healthy. But having a half-star staring down at them might help hammer the point home.”
According to co-author Bruce Neal, it makes sense to have one labelling system supporting food choices.
“While we hear lots about the problems with the HSR, it’s actually a pretty good system. It gets it right most of the time and consumers like it. We need to work to improve it, not trash it,” he said.
‘‘The fast food industry has one of the best-funded and least-regulated advertising programmes in the world. I doubt there is much that would dismay the junk food industry more than to be required to put health star ratings on all its products.’’