Obesity experts are calling on the Government to ramp up regulations around food manufacturing as new research reveals almost half of all processed supermarket food is considered “discretionary” — or junk.
- Study finds average health rating of packaged supermarket food has not improved
- Experts call on government to push manufacturers to improve nutrition standards
- Australian children consume 40 per cent of energy from highly processed foods
In a report published yesterday by the George Institute, researchers ranked the nutritional value of tens of thousands of packaged foods and beverages on sale in Australian supermarkets.
They found that despite efforts in recent years to improve nutritional standards of processed foods, little progress had been made overall when it came to Australia’s packaged food supply.
Gary Sacks, co-author of the study and associate professor at Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre, said government action was urgently needed to encourage manufacturers and retailers to make foods healthier.
“We know that unhealthy diets are the biggest contributor to poor health in Australia, and at the moment Australians’ diets are dominated by packaged food,” Dr Sacks said.
“If we want to make a real difference to Australians’ health, we need to improve the healthiness of packaged foods.”
Jane Martin, executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, which includes the Global Obesity Centre, said without stricter regulations, brands had little incentive to reduce the salt, sugar, and saturated fat content in their products.
“There’s no accountability at the moment, and that’s the problem,” Ms Martin said.
“For adults, 35 per cent of the energy they’re consuming every day is coming from highly processed foods, and for children, it’s even higher — 41 per cent.”
In Australia, nearly two thirds of adults and one quarter of children are overweight or obese. Excess weight is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.
“This is an urgent and serious public health issue,” Ms Martin said.
‘Disappointing’ lack of change
Using the government’s Health Star Rating System, the researchers assessed the nutritional quality of 32,000 products by 33 major food and beverage brands, including Heinz, Kellogg’s and Nestle.
Products included breads, cereals, pasta, cheese, desserts, processed meats, and fruit juice.
“We took a snapshot of what our packaged food supply in Australia looks like … by food manufacturer and by product category,” Dr Sacks said.
Each product was rated between 0.5 and 5.0 stars (least healthy to most healthy), assessed for its level of processing and nutrient composition, and classified as a ‘core’ or ‘discretionary’ food.
Between 2017 and 2018, 16 brands recorded a fall in their average health star rating (HSR), eight experienced an improvement, and nine remained unchanged.
“One year isn’t a very long time [to study], but it is disappointing that there has been such little change … particularly given how important diet is to the health of Australians,” Dr Sacks said.
Overall, the researchers found A2 Dairy, Sanitarium, and Nudie Foods were the healthiest brands (with an average of 4.1 stars), while Frucor, Mondelez, and Bundaberg Brewed Drinks were the least healthy (with an average of 1.3 stars).
Of the major supermarkets’ own-brand products, Woolworths came out on top with an average of 3.2 stars, followed by Coles on 3.0, ALDI on 2.7, and IGA on 2.6.
“For the most part, own-brand products sort of match the branded products from a nutrient point of view,” Dr Sacks said.
The researchers found only four in 10 of IGA and ALDI’s own-brand products were considered ‘healthy’ (3.5 stars and above), and that ALDI had the highest proportion of ultra-processed foods (which tend to contain additional sugars, oils, fat and salt).
Calls for mandatory health star ratings
Ms Martin said the report was evidence that current initiatives to engage the food and beverage industry to reformulate products and a create healthier food environment for Australians didn’t go far enough.
“We have a number of initiatives that should be driving reformulation — particularly of high sugar, salt and saturated fat — which don’t seem to be having an impact,” she said.
The Government’s Health Star Rating System, which is designed to help consumers make healthier choices and encourage manufacturers to improve the nutritional value of packaged foods, currently operates on a voluntary basis.
“What we’ve seen is that only a third of products are carrying the rating … which doesn’t really support the public in a way that it’s designed to do,” Ms Martin said.
“The key thing we’d like to see is for the Health Star Rating System to become mandatory.”
The system, which has been criticised in the pastfor “misrepresenting nutrition”, is currently undergoing a five-year review.
Dr Sacks said although it had some anomalies, which the review would “hopefully iron out”, the system on whole did a good job of classifying the healthiness of products.
In addition to compulsory on-pack labelling, the report also called on the Government to increase the scope of its Healthy Food Partnership — an initiative that encourages food and beverage manufacturers to voluntarily reformulate their products.
“The Partnership must set clear targets and timelines for the reformulation of all unhealthy food categories and monitor progress against them,” the authors wrote.
They added that food manufacturers should benchmark the healthiness of their products against “best-in-category” equivalents, and that food retailers should take a more active role in improving the nutritional standards of the food supply.
“Food retailers have a huge number of products and the power to significantly impact on the healthiness of the food supply, as they are the gatekeepers to the majority of food and beverage purchases made in Australia,” Dr Sacks said.
“This report shows clear opportunities for manufacturers and retailers to make significant improvements to the healthiness of the food supply.”
Food industry says system works
But Geoffrey Annison, deputy CEO of the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), rejected the claim that food manufacturers weren’t doing enough to improve the healthiness of their products.
“This report is simply a snapshot in time. It doesn’t reflect the history of the food industry … which has been responding to changes in nutritional science for decades,” Dr Annison said.
He said that the AFGC strongly supported the government’s Healthy Food Partnership reformulation program, but that there were always going to be “iconic foods such as chocolate” which should remain as they are.
“You can’t change the formulation of chocolate because it wouldn’t be chocolate anymore. But we don’t expect people to eat large amounts of chocolate,” he said.
Dr Annison said the voluntary Health Star Rating System had been “very successful”.
“There’s enough information out there on food packs to help consumers who are interested to select the foods that are appropriate to a healthy diet for them,” he said.
“But it’s not just the nutrient profile of the products … it’s the amount of the food consumers are eating, and the combination of foods they’re eating.
“It is the responsibility of industry to do something, but it is also the responsibility of consumers, ultimately, to determine what they eat.”
But Ms Martin said consumers weren’t always getting all the information they needed to make informed choices.
“When you’re rushing through a supermarket trying to buy food for dinner or for your kids’ lunchboxes, you’re not interpreting this information which is quite complex and time consuming,” she said.
“If guidelines and targets were set, which manufacturers were expected to meet, it would go a long way to ensuring that we get meaningful change.”