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Do you plan ahead and take morning tea and lunch to school? Or do you smell the hot chips at lunchtime and grab some of those? Maybe you have both your own lunch and the hot chips? What is it that makes you choose the food that you do? And why do we need food, anyway?

One of the main reasons for eating is that it gives our bodies energy. But not everyone needs energy in the same amount. For example, take two guys with very different energy needs. Hamish exercises every day and uses large amounts of energy, but John prefers to watch videos and uses much less energy. In order to be healthy and feel good, each one needs to be able to match his food intake with his lifestyle. If he doesn't, he might feel run down or tired, and he may lose or gain weight.

Choosing what to eat

To balance the food you eat with the energy requirements of your lifestyle, you need to know more about what you are eating. Two recognised systems used in New Zealand and Australia are the Health Star Rating and the Heart Foundation Tick. Both options allow you to compare similar packaged foods. Both systems are voluntary – food companies opt in to have their products tested and labelled.

Health Star Rating

The Health Star Rating system uses a star rating scale that ranges from half a star to five stars. Foods with more stars are healthier than comparable foods with fewer stars. Ratings are based on:

  • risk nutrients such as total sugar, energy, sodium and saturated fat
  • healthy ingredients such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes
  • dietary fibre and protein content, if applicable.

Manufacturers use a Health Star Rating calculator – an algorithm that assigns points based on the nutrient content of 100 g or 100 ml of the food item.

Single-ingredient products like flour and foods without a nutrition panel like coffee and alcohol do not have ratings. Formulated foods that cannot have ratings include supplementary foods for young children, infant formula and foods for special medical purposes.

Heart Foundation Tick

The Heart Foundation Tick worked in a similar manner. The Tick allowed you to compare comparable foods and choose products that are lower in fat, sodium and energy and higher in healthy ingredients. The Heart Foundation decided to retire the Tick in preference for the Health Star Rating. It is being phased out between 2016 and 2018.

Occasional foods

Both rating systems recognise that some foods that receive stars or ticks might be something you should only eat occasionally. For example, nuts are highly nutritious, but they are also energy-dense foods so they need to be eaten in moderation. Packaged foods should be part of diet dominated by vegetables, fruits, legumes, lean meat, chicken, fish and reduced-fat dairy products.

Foods are not good or bad

Often we are told that particular foods are good or bad for us, but by eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly and knowing how to choose the right foods for what you are doing, you will be able to find an appropriate time to eat all kinds of foods.

Nature of science

Scientists, nutritionists and health officials use robust scientific research to make recommendations on healthy food choices. Governments support these recommendations with systems like the Health Star Rating system. However, it is still up to individuals to make considered choices regarding diet.

Useful links

Learn more about the Heart Foundation Tick and how it works.

Visit the Ministry for Primary Industries website to learn more about the Health Star Rating system.

Visit the Plant & Food Research website to find about its Food Innovation research programmes.

    Published 1 February 2007, Updated 29 September 2017