I was recently doing my weekly grocery shop in one of our local supermarkets, when something caught my eye – it was one of those end-of-the-aisle, pile-‘em-up special buys that you inevitably have to avoid inadvertently knocking over with your trolley when you go around the corner.
But that wasn’t the bit that caught my eye. What did catch it was the fact that the product being sold was Nutri-Grain, and that it had a blazingly large ‘Health Star Rating’ in the corner of the box, shouting to the heavens that the contents of the box had been given 4 stars (out of 5)
I couldn’t help myself – I think I actually laughed out loud in disbelief (before looking around sheepishly to see if anyone else in the supermarket had noticed).
So, I decided I would have an in-depth look into this new, supposedly great, easy system that has been designed to apparently help us make healthier food choices. You can check out the Health Star Rating website for yourself here.
According to the official website, the Health Star Rating has been designed to assess each food on 3 factors:
- The food's kilojoule (or calorie) content, which is termed 'energy'
- ‘Bad’ ingredients – for instance, salt, sugar
- ‘Good’ ingredients – vitamins, minerals, fibre etc
The system only applies to packaged, pre-made foods, and the more stars, the healthier the food is supposed to be (5 stars being the top score).
So let’s take a closer look at this particular cereal that caught my eye, shall we?
According to Kellog’s website, what I found out was that Nutri-Grain contains:
- 22 different ingredients in total (including vitamins & minerals individually listed). These would have been naturally removed during the processing of the product, then added in later.
- over 10 grams of sugar per cup of cereal – so in other words, 2 teaspoons of sugar. Sugar is the second ingredient in the list, and according to Australian labelling laws, food ingredients must be listed in descending order of quantity, with the predominant ingredients coming first on the list. The nutrition panel states that there is 26.7g sugar per 100g – so in other words, that means over ¼ of any given bowl of Nutri-Grain is made up of sugar.
I don’t know about you, but I find it quite difficult to take a system that rates a product that is ¼ sugar as healthy, seriously.
Out of curiosity, while writing this article, I grabbed a bag of organic oats from my pantry, in order to draw a bit of a comparison to the Nutri-Grain. Porridge made on plain oats is a favourite in our household, particularly as the weather cools down. My bag of oats contained:
- 1 single ingredient – whole grain oats. (How often do you see a product with just one ingredient these days?!)
- 1.4g sugar per 100g. So with plain oats, less than 2% or 1/50th of what you eat is actually sugar. This means Nutri-Grain has roughly 18x more sugar than the plain oats.
- Interestingly, the oats contained a good amount of protein, and some fat (this would be healthy fat from the natural part of the grain itself, which I would have no problem with). However, the oats beat the Nutri-Grain hands down for both sodium and fibre content (the Nutri-Grain had 60x more sodium, and less than half the amount of fibre than the oats when the two products were compared gram-for-gram).
- I would bet my boots that a nice bowl of porridge would keep you fuller for a lot longer than a bowl of Nutri-Grain!
So, that being said, how should you apply the Health Star Rating in your day-to-day life?
My advice is, to take the rating system with a grain of salt (figuratively speaking, of course). Bear in mind that the rating is applicable to processed foods – ideally, these are foods that really shouldn’t be forming a large part of your diet anyway, if you are wanting to stay healthy. Here are a few little additional naturopathic pearls of wisdom:
- First of all, don’t take too much notice of the kilojoule/calorie/energy content. Our bodies actually process calories differently, with calories from sugar being turned into fat more easily than those from protein (or even fat, quite surprisingly). Focus on whether a food is going to provide a wholesome and nourishing source of energy and nutrients to your body, rather than obsessing over calories. Interestingly, the oats and the Nutri-Grain came out practically even in kilojoule content when I compared them.
- ALWAYS check the sugar content of the product, even if it has been given a good star rating. Look at the ‘per 100g’ column, as this will give you an amount that you can then work out to be a percentage. Ideally, go for less than 5g sugar/100g, or at the very least, nothing over 10g/100g.
- Check the ingredients list – the less ingredients, the less processed the food will be. Certainly stay away from as many numbers as possible, or ingredients that you can’t pronounce!
- Base most of your food intake around natural, unprocessed foods. These include fresh fruit and vegies, lean meat/chicken/fish/eggs (go for grass-fed, organic or free-range where possible), raw nuts and seeds, with herbs and spices for flavour. If you eat these foods the majority of the time, both your body and your hip pocket will thank you.
- Try to make homemade snacks for the family where possible. This way you can control the ingredients, the sugar content, and there are not going to be any added nasties that you don't know about. If you are pressed for time, make large batches and freeze, so that you have easy lunchbox snacks.
- Change your breakfast habits. This is often one of the first things I address with my patients! It seems to be ingrained in us these days to automatically reach for packaged cereals or toast for breakfast, however there are many other options that will fill you up better and give you energy for your day. Click here for some great breakfast ideas that don't come out of a box.