The study, which was published this week in the international journal Public Health Nutrition, collected nutrition information data from food packages in major antipodean supermarkets. The data was then assessed using a regionally accepted nutrient profiling scoring standard.
Limited healthy choices a concern
The proportion of products eligible to display health claims was quantified along with the associations between each product’s score and energy density, saturated fat, sugar and salt content.
“The few healthy choices available in key staple food categories is a concern,” said study leader Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu.
“Dietary risk factors such as high salt and high saturated fat, low fruit and vegetables, and excess energy intakes, accounted for 11% of health loss in New Zealand in 2006. That is more than the burden of disease due to smoking [which stands at 9%].”
Improving diets and reducing salt intakes are priorities for governments to reduce death from diseases linked to food consumption.
“Processed foods contribute about three-quarters of dietary energy and nutrients consumed in high-income countries, so consumer food choices and the nutritional makeup of processed foods have enormous potential to influence dietary intakes,” said Ni Mhurchu.
“Improvements in nutritional quality of foods through healthier product reformulation could significantly improve people’s diets. Effective front-of-pack nutrition labelling that provides people with clear information and empowers them to make healthier food choices is another cost-effective way to improve people’s diets.”
New Zealanders need to step up
The study scored 23,596 packaged food and non-alcoholic drinks—15,219 in Australia and 8,377 in New Zealand.
Across both countries only 45% of foods assessed were deemed healthy enough to carry health claims, though Australia, at 47%, did better than New Zealand’s 41%.
“Australia had a higher proportion of foods classified as healthy compared with New Zealand, largely driven by the healthier nutritional profile of Australian non-alcoholic drinks, snack foods, and meat products,” she said.
“If we expect New Zealanders to get the healthy balance right we need to give them the opportunity and tools to do so. Some food companies are already working to improve the nutritional profile of their products, but much more needs to be done.”
The study was led by the National Institute for Health Innovation (NIHI), University of Auckland, in collaboration with the George Institute for Global Health in Australia. The analyses were funded by a University of Auckland summer studentship.