Majority of our packaged foods unhealthy

30 July 2015

The majority of packaged food available in New Zealand supermarkets is ultra-processed and so is also the unhealthiest food available.

The ultra-processed foods are less healthy than less processed foods,” says Dr Wilma Waterlander from the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health. “The lack of significant price difference between ultra- and less processed foods suggests ultra-processed foods might provide time-poor consumers with more value for money.

“These findings highlight the need to improve the supermarket food supply by reducing numbers of ultra-processed foods and reformulating products to improve their nutritional profile,” she says.

Most of the products were varieties of the same product. For example 311 breakfast cereal products were available, of which 92 (29.6 percent) were produced by two food manufacturers, Sanitarium and Kellogg’s.

“This poses an unnecessary large exposure of unhealthy food products to New Zealand consumers and this study shows potential to create a healthier supermarket food environment,” says Dr Waterlander. “Strategies could for example, include reducing the number of varieties of unhealthy ultra-processed food and to reformulate products to improve their nutrient profile.”

Ultra-processed foods had the worst nutrient profile, but they were the most available packaged products in a sample of New Zealand supermarkets. In four Auckland supermarkets, (in 2011 and 2013), the products were classified according to their level of industrial processing (eg. minimally, culinary and ultra-processed) and their Nutrient Profiling Score (NPSC).

The study was recently published in the Journal Public Health Nutrition.  The University of Auckland population nutrition researchers examined the availability of packaged food products in New Zealand supermarkets using this level of industrial processing, as well as the (NPSC), the price (energy, unit and serving costs) and the brand variety.

The majority (84 percent in 2011 and 83 percent in 2013) of packaged foods were classified as ultra-processed, says Dr Waterlander.

“Ultra-processed foods had a worse nutrient profile (NPSC=11.63) than culinary processed foods (NPSC=7.95), which in turn had a worse nutrient profile than minimally processed foods (NPSC=3.27) p<0.001,” she says.

“No clear associations were observed among the three price measures and level of processing,” says Dr Waterlander. “This study observed many variations of virtually the same product. The ten largest food manufacturers produced 35 percent of all packaged foods available.”

This study forms the basis of a new research project focusing on taking a food systems approach to public heath nutrition lead by Dr Waterlander as part of her Heart Foundation Fellowship.

“If we are serious about improving population diets, we need to look at the whole system” she says. “We need to study how food moves from the farm to the supermarket and how we can work with all actors to improve this system. It is not fair to solely blame supermarkets or food industry, it is all linked together.”

Dr Waterlander is conducting a case study on New Zealand potatoes to get an overview of the New Zealand food system. She aims to study both the nutritional and monetary value of potatoes as they move through the food chain.

“I’m interested to talk to anyone involved in this to learn more about the potato industry,” she says. “We need to stop forcing public health interventions on the food system.  We need to talk to each other and find common wins.”

  • The classification system used in this study (from Monteiro et al. 2010) described a three-level classification system to categorise processed foods based on the applied industrial processes: unprocessed or minimally processed, culinary processed and ultra-processed food products.
  • This study aimed to use this classification to measure the packaged food environment in New Zealand supermarkets by examining the nutrient profiling score, price and product variety in relation to level of industrial processing.
  • The link to this published paper is http://journals.cambridge.org/phn/processed

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