Packaged foods in Australia: Ultra-processed products making people 'fat and sick'

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Researchers at the George Institute for Global Health warn that urgent action is needed to improve the nutritional make-up of packaged foods. ©iStock.
Researchers at the George Institute for Global Health warn that urgent action is needed to improve the nutritional make-up of packaged foods. ©iStock.

Related tags: Australia, Packaged Food, processed food

Six out of 10 Australian packaged foods are highly or ultra-processed, more than half are discretionary or junk foods, and just one third are healthy, according to a stark new analysis.

Researchers at the George Institute for Global Health, who published their findings in the journal Nutrients​, warned that urgent action is needed to improve the nutritional make-up of packaged foods.

Our research shows that Australia’s packaged food environment is full of foods laden in sugar, fat and salt that are also highly processed​,” said lead researcher Michelle Crino. 

It’s not just a few packaged foods that we need to be aware of. Our supermarket shelves are full of products that are making us fat and making us sick​.”

Crino’s team examined more than 40,000 packaged food items ranging from breads to sauces, confectionary, canned foods, oils and dairy products.

They determined the health star rating of these — whether they were core or discretionary products and the extent of their processing. They also looked at the proportion of foods meeting reformulation targets for sodium, saturated fat and sugar.

Bombarded by junk food

Based on this analysis, the researchers found that 53% of the Australian packaged supermarket foods are comprised of energy-dense and nutrient-poor discretionary products, such as sweetened soft drinks, biscuits, chocolate, meat pies, butter and salty snacks.

Just 47% were considered core foods, including fruit and veg, legumes, nuts and seeds, cereal grains, lean meats, fish and dairy products. However, Australian dietary guidelines say these should make up the majority one’s diet.

Of the products analysed just over a third had a health star rating of 3.5 or higher, which usually indicates a basic level of healthfulness.

Six out of 10 were found to be ultra-processed, 18% moderately processed and 21% less processed foods. Almost all convenience foods, including ready-to-eat meals, pre-prepared sauces and dressings, canned and processed meats, frozen meals and desserts, fell in the ultra-processed category.

The George Institute’s Professor Bruce Neal said shoppers are being bombarded with junk foods, making it little wonder that Australia is in the midst of an obesity epidemic.

It’s a sad reflection of the state of our food industry that half of all packaged foods are essentially junk foods that we should only be eating occasionally. We have to find a way to make junk food less profitable, because what works for the industry’s bottom line is a disaster for the nation’s waistline​,” Prof Neal said.

“Australians haven’t chosen to be obese — they’re obese because selling cheap, unhealthy food everywhere, all the time, is how industry profits are maximised.” 

Help needed

He urged the government to step in to find a balance between supporting the food industry while also looking after the nation’s health.

To do so doesn’t mean putting companies out of business, but promoting healthier options and devising better labelling, he added.

We also need manufacturers to stop adding so much salt, sugar and harmful fat during processing,​” he said.

Crino said the Australian Healthy Food Partnership is currently developing updated salt, fat and sugar targets, and this latest research could be used to help identify key product categories where public health action is most needed.

We found that just half of packaged foods had targets for salt reduction and a good third of these hadn’t met them. And less than one per cent of all packaged foods items had yet to meet any saturated fat targets. There is a clear gap where public health intervention is required​,” she said.

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