Call for NZ Government to act after study finds most packaged food unhealthy

Phil
Taylor is a senior writer for the New Zealand Herald

The biggest independent study to date
of packaged food on supermarket shelves has found most of it is unhealthy.

More than two-thirds was classified as
“ultra-processed” and half were not foods that are necessary in a
person’s diet.

Authors of the study are calling on the NZ Government to make improved Health Star Ratings labels compulsory and to set food manufacturers targets to lower salt, sugar and saturated fat.

Both the current and the previous
government have opted to work with the food industry to encourage improvements
in labelling and reduction in sugar and salt content rather than impose
requirements.

But those who conducted the New Zealand
State of the Food Supply study say substantial change across the food supply
was unlikely without strong government direction.

“We need the Government to take
real action by setting targets to lower salt, sugar and saturated fat
content,” Dr Sally Mackay, a lead author of the report, said.

The study analysed 13,000 packaged food
items using the Health Star Rating criteria, which rates foods from 0.5 to 5
stars.

Researchers found that 59 per cent of
items have a low star rating and that even in categories such as muesli bars
and yoghurts the average rating was low.

Poor diet was the leading cause of
early death in New Zealand, accounting for nearly 20 per cent of illnesses and
premature death, Mackay said.

“Getting healthier foods on the
shelves makes it easier for consumers to make a healthy choice, which is key to
curbing the obesity epidemic and diet-related ill health,” said Mackay, a
research fellow at Auckland University’s medical and health sciences faculty.

Although acknowledging that the
country’s top food manufacturers have made commitments to reduce sugar, salt
and fat in their products, the researchers said industry uptake of the Health
Star Rating had been too slow at only 21 per cent of eligible products, and all
packaged food should be required to carry Health Star labels.

“Consumers have the right to know
the healthiness of the products they’re buying,” Mackay said.

Health Star Ratings are an independent
system developed by the New Zealand and Australian governments with public
health experts, the food industry and consumer groups. Packaged foods are given
a number of stars based on their nutrients, ingredients and the amount of
energy (kilojoules) they provide.

Whether to include the star rating on
labels is voluntary for food manufacturers.

Health Minister David Clark said the
Government was serious about tackling obesity and the health problems that
stemmed from too much sugar, fat and salt in our diets.

“We are working on this with the
food industry itself through the Food Industry Taskforce. Reformulation of
processed food and drink and an improved food labelling system are key strands
of this work.”

Clark said he was considering advice
about the next steps of the taskforce.

When he was in Opposition, Clark
criticised the National Government for not pulling corporates into line over
the ” tsunami of sugar and salt in everyday foods”.

An article he authored in 2017 said a
” massive flaw” in the voluntary food labelling system meant it could
be “rigged” by manufacturers “at the expense of New Zealanders’
health”.

He said a Labour Government would
“look at a front of package labelling system such as the number of
teaspoons of added sugar and salt in a product so that people can make clear
and informed decisions about their food intake.”

Yesterday, Clark said an independent
review of the Health Star Rating system had been done and Food Safety Minister
Damien O’Connor was leading the work.

A spokeswoman for O’Connor said a
report on the rating system was imminent.

The study, done in collaboration with
Australian food and health academics, aimed to take a snapshot of what we are
currently eating.

Among other key findings:

Fruit and vegetable juices and energy
drinks had the highest mean sugar content.

Most breads and cereals had ratings
above 3.5 stars. High performers included Goodman Fielder’s breads and Nestle’s
cereals, while Dairyworks had the lowest proportion of ultra-processed
products.

Only three companies had an average
star rating of 3.5 across their products – Sanitarium, McCain Foods and
Sealord.

Healthy Food Guide editor-at-large Niki
Bezzant said the findings were no surprise.

“The healthiest food doesn’t come
in packaging.”

Bezzant favours making it mandatory to
display health star ratings. “Though not perfect, it would at least give
shoppers a quick comparison between products.”

There is so much “marketing
speak” on packaging that shoppers couldn’t be expected to cut through it.

Researchers from a range of fields
including public health, medicine and marketing, have said a targeted tax on
sugar should be top-priority to tackle the country’s interconnected issues with
obesity, type 2 diabetes and rotten teeth.

The Labour-led Government has no plans
for such a tax.

The numbers

• 69 per cent of foods were classified
as “ultra-processed”.

• 13,000 packaged food items were
included in the study.

• 79 per cent of breads had a star
rating at or above 3.5.

• 68 per cent of breakfast cereals had
a star rating at or above 3.5.

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