Public health experts and Woolworths have spoken out in support of a 5-star health rating for olive oil.
The government’s proposed changes to the health star rating system would give a 5-star rating to processed oils such as canola and sunflower oil, but only 4 stars to extra virgin olive oil. The reason for the discrepancy is the higher saturated fat content of olive oil compared to the other oils.
These ratings contradict the Australian and New Zealand dietary guidelines and the advice of the Australian National Heart Foundation.
Support for a 5-star rating
Submissions to the new star rating system closed last month. Industry organisations in favour of a 5-star rating for olive oil included Woolworths, the AOA and the Queensland Olive Council. The submission was also supported by Choice, the Dietitians Association of Australia, Nutrition Australia and the Heart Foundation.
“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,” Woolworths submission says.
Meanwhile, the Cancer Council, the Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance and the Global Obesity Centre and Institute for Health Transformation at Deakin University suggested a more pragmatic approach. They proposed that the cut-off for saturated fat be moved from 12 per cent to 15 per cent to allow olive oil to qualify for a 5-star rating.
Nutritional benefits of olive oil were not considered
Boundary Bend, owner of Cobram Estate and Red Island brands, made a submission supported by nutrition scientist and dietitian, Dr Joanna McMillan. Dr McMillan is adjunct senior research fellow at LaTrobe University, and a member of Boundary Bend’s scientific advisory committee.
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Dr McMillan said that “nutritional science has moved away from single nutrients like saturated fat and more into dietary patterns.” She said that 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. She also pointed out that sunflower and canola oils are industrially refined and nutritionally inferior to extra virgin olive oil.
Boundary Bend’s submission 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.
Confidential submissions may seek to influence the outcome
There were eight other confidential submissions, mostly from industry, according to the Federal Department of Health. There is speculation that these may have come from the canola and sunflower industry, and that strong lobbying from these industries may influence the outcome of any final decision.