The rollout of consumer watchdog Choice’s front-of-pack Health Stars Rating Scheme has been surrounded by a litany of scandals and resistance from industry groups, including heated public exchanges with food giant Mondelez.
More significantly, federal assistant health minister (pictured below) Fiona Nash's chief of staff was prompted to resign when strong, direct links to food industry lobby groups were revealed – after he had ordered the Health Stars website to be taken down.
The federal government, however, has now approved the rating scheme and food manufacturers are now able to voluntarily implement the front of package ratings. Woolworths is amongst the first to apply the ratings to their range.
In the first round of ranking, only three out of 260 foods were given a five star rating in the scheme. Tucker's Natural produces two out of those three.
Their philosophy, says managing director Sam Tucker, has always revolved around using natural ingredients to work towards the best nutritional quality as a final outcome.
"We launched seven years ago. In year two we were looking at global trends and doing our market analysis, and certainly identified the health and functional food spaces as the future," Tucker says.
The personal driving force for Tucker was the birth of his three boys, now aged six, five and four, all born within two and a half years – a fact he says seems 'inconceivable'.
"We were buying them rice crackers thinking they're not bad for them, but they're not nutritionally good. My children were licking the MSG flavouring off the Sakatas and dumping them around the house."
It was that frustration which led him to develop Tucker's multifibre and smart snack range. Consumer trends meant that supermarket shelves were focused on 'free from' products, whether that was free from egg, dairy, gluten or other intolerance related ingredients, rather than 'better for you' products.
"Multifibre isn't the sexiest term. We developed that range thinking that we were absolute geniuses and we were going to take over the world. We took that to the major supermarkets and they looked at us like we were on planet nine."
Over time, Tucker says, consumers and the industry have caught up. And as they've caught up, the marketing and sales points that arise from being healthy often outweigh the cost of premium ingredients and packaging.
"From a customer perspective – I don't mean the end consumer – the ratings certainly lend credibility to what we're presenting to our buyers."
Tucker is the first to admit that he's well positioned to capitalise on the Choice ratings, as he's already achieved high star ratings and most of his products fall in to the 'better for you' category.
"To be my own devil's advocate, we have a gourmet cracker range which might not do as well."
Choice’s five star rating scheme uses an algorithm to dispense its ratings, taking in to account amounts of saturated fat, sodium, sugar and fibre, awarding bonus stars for nutritional content.
It does this based on 100 gram or millilitre serving sizes across the board; less than perfect for rating a product such as vegemite, but more perfect, Choice says, than existing ratings which are based on arbitrary and confusing serving sizes and daily intake percentages.
Choice released the results of a study on serving sizes in the snack food category, saying it highlights the inconsistency of the industry to label its food clearly.
Of 40 corn chip products, minimum serving sizes ranged from 25g to 100g. 101 potato chip products listed serving sizes from 19g to 50g. Ready meals ranged from 115g to 450g, with seemingly no distinction as to why.
Within the Health Stars Rating Scheme, there's a lot of variance between similar products. Choice offered up the ratings of string cheese: Kraft's string cheese scores two stars, while Bega's stringers achieved four and a half.
It's these differences that Choice thinks will make all the difference to parents. A quick glance at similar products on the shelf with front of package ratings will give them an easy comparison.
Advocates say that these small decisions, multiplied over the population, will add up to huge health savings in a nation increasingly beset by obesity and health issues. Choice also believes that this competition will bring more products with tangible health benefits to the market.
In fact, on 14 June, the federal health department noted that if voluntary uptake of the front-of-pack labelling wasn't high enough, the process would be made mandatory in two years. That means that the industry might not have a say: adapt or decline.
One of the bluntest critics of the ratings scheme in Mondelez, owner of Kraft, Cadbury, Nabisco and Oreo. Choice campaigns manager Angela Cartwright stated that, "Choice decided to take a closer look at Mondelez after the company attempted to discredit the Health Star Rating Scheme, claiming the scheme was ‘ill-founded, unscientific and confusing’, when in fact it was considerably informed by market research showing strong support for it.
"Choice did three product comparisons and found the Health Stars shot down the Mondelez product each time," Cartwright said.
Mondelez hit back by saying that 'Philadelphia Cheese Cream is healthier than an apple' according to the ratings.
In fairness, Sam Tucker says, it's not the most ridiculous ratings systems his company has attempted to adhere to. Just about all of Tucker's Naturals products are developed with such ratings in mind.
He first had 'the door slammed in his face' when developing the Portion Snack Range for the Healthy Kids schools program.
"We do better than the criteria. We usually beat it. And then they turn around and say, ‘well, no, you don't qualify for some unusual thing.’"
In this case, where foods are divided in to green, amber and red, his products fall firmly in to the green product in every single way – except they're classed as processed foods, and there's no green category for processed foods.
That prompted Tucker's Natural to make its own rating system, of a sort.
"I said, ‘look, this is ridiculous. Let's create our own way of managing that for our own brand.’ So we came up with the Everyday Smart Snack logo. We've used that to communicate that we know you can eat it everyday as part of a balanced diet."
The key to a move like that, Sam Tucker thinks, is to back it up. The brand has always made a push for transparency. While they used to communicate just about everything via packaging, Tucker says it became too much.
They instead push a vast majority of that information to their website, under a 'Smart Snack' portal. Ingredient lists, fibre content and more are all an effort to build trust with the consumer.
"In the age of transparency and consumerism, it's easy for the customer to connect and pass opinion, and it's a dangerous strategy not to be transparent and not to live up to what you're saying you're going to deliver," Tucker says.
When asked if he thinks the ratings are too stringent, seeing as only three of the 260 products reviewed received five star ratings, Tucker was reluctant to condemn the ratings.
"The fact that a lot of snacks – and again we're not privy to the list of products – assuming, those snacks were processed foods, it shows you that the marketing claims being made on a lot of products are potentially misleading."
It's a sentiment that Choice shares, saying that a lot of consumers were tired of being misled by labels of 'low fat' when the fat could just as likely have been replaced by artificial sweeteners, not really providing tangible health benefits in the long rung.
"It's easy to be transparent when you're honest," says Tucker.
There are legitimate grievances with the ratings system. Manufacturers will be the ones to take up the cost of reworking their labelling, and Tucker also acknowledges a lot of people take issue with the fact that the stars will take up valuable marketing space – especially if it's not a particularly high-scoring product.
"I think it's something that we need to accept as an industry, that we need to provide as much information to consumers as possible for them to make the right decisions. Consumers are sensible. They make decisions every day.
"If a consumer is looking to eat healthily and they're satisfied the criteria is going to assist that, then it certainly does help to rate products and allow them to make better decisions. If it's an easier thing for the consumer to understand, we're happy with that."