State of NZ's packaged food

Tuesday, 27 August, 2019

State of NZ's packaged food

An in-depth review of packaged food sold in New Zealand supermarkets revealed that it is primarily unhealthy, with almost 70% classified as ultra-processed, such as ready-to-eat or -drink items with added sugar, salt, fat and additives. Research indicates that 52% of packaged foods on supermarket shelves are discretionary foods, with authors calling for the government to set food reformulation targets and for health star ratings to be made mandatory as part of a review of the system.

The inaugural New Zealand State of the Food Supply report was produced by a team of public health experts at the University of Auckland in collaboration with The George Institute in Global Health in Australia. It strives to support government, business and community efforts to help New Zealanders improve their diets by increasing the availability of health foods in supermarkets.

“A poor diet is the leading cause of early death in Aotearoa, New Zealand, accounting for nearly 20% of illness and premature death,” said report author Dr Sally Mackay, a research fellow in the university’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

Increasing the availability of healthy food on supermarket shelves makes it easier for consumers to make a healthy choice, which can in turn decrease the obesity epidemic and diet-related ill health.

After analysing 13,000 packaged food items and the largest food and beverage manufacturers by market share, researchers used the Health Star Rating criteria to identify discretionary foods (not necessarily in a person’s diet). Key findings from their research revealed that 59% of packaged foods in supermarkets have a Health Star Rating below 3.5, even in categories where consumers expect healthier options, such as muesli bars and yoghurts.

The healthiest major food category was packaged fruit and vegetables (including added-sugar canned fruits and jams), with an average Health Star Rating of 3.9. The healthiest minor food categories comprised bread, breakfast cereals, couscous, pasta, rice, milk, nuts and meat alternatives.

Non-alcoholic drinks were classified as discretionary (62%) and ultra-processed (85%), with an average Health Star Rating of 2.3. Fruit and vegetable juices and energy drinks had the highest mean sugar content, 9.4 mL/100 mL and 7.4 mL/100 mL respectively.

Sanitarium, McCain Foods and Sealord were the only companies with a mean Health Star Rating of 3.5 or above, scoring 4.1, 3.9 and 3.8 respectively.

High-performers included Goodman Fielder’s breads (88% at or above 3.5) and Nestlé’s breakfast cereals (100%). Dairyworks had the lowest proportion of ultra-processed products (11%) across all categories. These categories indicate that it’s possible to have healthy food products within a category.

“Ultimately, it would be great to see consumers buying more fresh wholefoods. But realistically there will always be a need for packaged food, so it needs to be as healthy as possible,” said Dr Mackay.

While many of New Zealand’s food manufacturers and retailers have committed to reformulation projects and to lower sugar levels in their products, to substantially change the food supply, “we need the government to take real action by setting targets to lower salt, sugar and saturated fat content”, said Dr Mackay.

The report also argues that all packaged food should be required to carry Health Star labelling. The report will be repeated annually by researchers to uncover trends.

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