Health star ratings are a good concept – but I find it hard to trust them. Not since I picked up a bottle of Norco Mighty Cool banana flavoured milk, in a hurry recently. It has a 4.5 health star rating. When I later looked at the sugar content on the label it was 22g – that's more than five teaspoons, for a product clearly aimed at young children. There was a lot of swearing when I saw that. How on earth does that deserve a near-perfect health rating?
But I blame myself. In a rush, I didn't do my normal due diligence, which consists of standing in the supermarket aisles like a mad woman scrutinising ingredients and squinting at the tiny numbers on the nutritional panel. I look at "sugars" and break it down into teaspoons (there are 4.2g of sugar in a teaspoon). Anything more than two teaspoons doesn't get my "mum" health star rating.
Even products that don't have a star rating are out there trying to convince us that they are healthy. I used to buy those yoghurt squeeze pouches. They are so darn convenient and kids love them.
But the CalciYum brand, for example, which features cute pictures of Peppa Pig and Disney princesses and touts its "real fruit", "no artificial colours" and how it is a "nutritious snack for growing kids" has 14.5g (three and a half teaspoons) of sugar per serving. Sorry, but it doesn't pass my test.
I thought I'd struck paydirt when I found a range of fruit yoghurts labelled "no sugar". That was until I found they used artificial sweetener when I nearly went cross-eyed reading the ingredients. Funnily enough that wasn't spruiked on the front of the packet. I also had a flirtation with muesli bars but now reserve them for emergencies. I had my phase of kidding myself that fruit roll-ups might be a substitute for fruit, but I wisened up to that too.
I'm not the only one getting paranoid that food manufacturers are out to get me, and fed up with feeling conned by the Trojan horse packaging of many of these products.
Because clearly, the food manufacturers are starting to feel the heat. Nestle last year cut the amount of sugar drastically in its muesli bars in order to get a favourable health star rating; and the notoriously sweet Nutri-Grain has been reformulated to contain less sugar. After a pressure campaign, Tiny Teddies has agreed to phase out its outrageous self-made NSW School Canteen "amber" rating by mid-this year.
But even if there's less sugar in these products, they still contain long lists of ingredients like humectants, emulsifier, and preservatives.
I know, I know, the answer is simple – just avoid processed food outright. But like many of us, I am looking for shortcuts. I'm busy, and I'm tired, and vulnerable to marketing. I am tempted by neatly pre-packaged snacks I can just drop into my kids' lunchboxes in a hurry, and hear no complaints about.
I now bake the kids a very low-sugar banana bread, where I know exactly what goes in it. And I have driven out of my way to source small cartons of plain milk, which are actually very hard to find.
For the record, I'm not an anti-sugar zealot. Manufacturers have every right to make and sell sweet treats. What annoys me is the sheer amount of processed sugary food masquerading as health food, targeted at children. And then giving some of these foods a near-perfect health star rating, is inexplicable. For now, I remain a sceptic and will continue being that mad woman in the supermarket, loitering in the aisles and squinting at labels.
So rather than give my kids a flavoured milk or yoghurt, muesli bar, fruit roll-up or breakfast cereal laden with as much sugar as a slice of chocolate cake, I'd rather be honest about it and give them the chocolate cake. At least, then we'd know exactly what we were eating and enjoying – a dessert.