By Caitlin Fitzsimmons – The Sydney Morning Herald
Public health experts and Woolworths oppose a change to the health star ratings that would signal olive oil was not as healthy as canola and sunflower oils.
The health star ratings, the government-backed system that assigns food a health score out of five to guide consumers to make healthier choices, are not currently displayed on many edible oils.
As part of its five year review of the health star ratings system, the Government is proposing a change that would give a five-star score to canola and sunflower oils, but only four stars to extra virgin olive oil because of its saturated fat content. This contradicts the Australian and New Zealand dietary guidelines and the advice of the Australian National Heart Foundation.
Nutrition scientist and dietitian Dr Joanna McMillan, adjunct senior research fellow with Latrobe University and a member of the scientific advisory committee of olive oil company Boundary Bend (owner of Cobram Estate and Red Island), said giving a lower health star rating to olive oil would mislead consumers.
“Nutritional science has moved away from single nutrients like saturated fat and more into dietary patterns,” Dr McMillan said. “Eating a party pie is not the same as eating a piece of cheese even if they have the same saturated fat.”
Dr McMillan said extra virgin olive oil was the best option for home use, being low in saturated fat with a range of other nutritional benefits not considered by the health star system. Meanwhile, sunflower and canola oil were “industrially refined” and nutritionally inferior to olive oil, with the sole advantage of a lower cost.
Most public submissions to the review of the health star ratings system oppose the change. The Cancer Council, the Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance and the Global Obesity Centre and Institute for Health Transformation at Deakin University suggested raising the cut-off of saturated fat from 12 per cent to 15 per cent to allow olive oil to have a five-star rating.
However, there were eight confidential submissions mostly from industry, according to the federal Department of Health. Dr McMillan said she was concerned there would be “strong lobbying” from the canola and sunflower oil industry and this could influence the outcome.
Other experts opposing the change because of the impact on olive oil include Choice, the Dietitians Association of Australia, Nutrition Australia and the Heart Foundation.
“Olive oil scoring less stars than canola oil is inconsistent with our advice, population health messages and may create consumer confusion,” the Heart Foundation submission says.
“It also may affect the credibility of the system given that a growing number of consumers are anti- industrially processed oils like canola oil and blended vegetable oils.”
On the industry side, Woolworths, the Australian Olive Association, the Olive Centre and Queensland Olive Council also opposed the measure.
“Woolworths recommends that all healthier oils that contain predominantly unsaturated fats are scored equally,” the supermarket’s submission says. “If [the change] goes ahead as proposed, Australia and New Zealand will be the only countries where an official system of endorsement actively promotes canola and sunflower oil over extra virgin olive oil, suggesting directly that they are a healthier choice.”
Boundary Bend’s submission, which Dr McMillan supported, recommended simply removing edible oil from the health star ratings system on the basis that other single-ingredient products such as flour, sugar and salt are not rated.
Nutritionist and dietitian Rosemary Stanton suggested capping all edible oils at four stars because they were not an essential food group.
The Australian Medical Association, the George Institute and the Public Health Association of Australia backed the increased focus on saturated fat but did not mention olive oil in their submissions.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is the associate editor of The Sun-Herald and a columnist.