The research, which was published in the journal Preventive Medicine, assessed the content of promotional circulars from major supermarket chains and singled out ParknShop for promoting the highest proportion of foods that were high in sugar and fat.
Compiled by Deakin University’s WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention, the study found that unhealthy food was particularly prominent in most of the countries surveyed, especially the UK, USA, Australia and Malaysia, while Hong Kong came out on top, with 61.7% of the content of circulars featuring unhealthy foods. It also had the lowest ratio of healthy to unhealthy foods, at 0.5%.
Circulars from Loblaws (Canada), New World (New Zealand), FairPrice (Singapore) and Shoprite (South Africa) also contained a high proportion of unhealthy food (40% to 50%). The exceptions were the Philippines, where circulars contained no unhealthy foods, and India, where just 11% of the products featured were unhealthy.
Countries were selected based on the online availability of weekly circulars and the absence of significant language or interpretation barriers.
"A clear opportunity exists for supermarkets to use their circulars to promote healthy eating," says Adrian Cameron, a senior research fellow with the centre.
"This international comparison shows that some major supermarkets are able to promote more healthy foods than unhealthy foods. The high levels of promotion of junk food by other supermarkets therefore need not be the norm."
Supermarkets are a major source of food in most high-income countries and increasingly in middle- and low-income countries. These findings support previous work by the Deakin team which found supermarkets worldwide heavily promote unhealthy foods at key sites in-store, such as end-of-aisle and checkout displays.
"With guidelines suggesting that discretionary foods should only constitute a small component of the total diet, these results show that the supermarket food environment is at odds with dietary recommendations," Dr Cameron said.
"We believe the promotion of unhealthy foods by supermarkets could be a major barrier to halting the global obesity epidemic.
"It is becoming a particular concern in low and middle-income countries where supermarkets are rapidly displacing traditional food sources. Efforts to restrict unhealthy food marketing should also focus on supermarkets.”
Speaking to South China Morning Post, a ParknShop spokesman said the study did not reflect the full picture.
"ParknShop promotes its products via diverse channels, including TV, newspapers, magazines and also in our stores and eStore, covering a wide variety of products including fresh meat, vegetables, fruits and health foods."