30 Jul 2015

Most packaged supermarket food is unhealthy - study

4:31 pm on 30 July 2015

More than 80 percent of packaged foods available in supermarkets are unhealthy and over-processed, a study has found.

Higher prices for fruit, yoghurt and chicken pushed up food prices in December.

Photo: 123rf

The Auckland University study examined more than 19,000 packaged products at four Auckland supermarkets in 2011 and 2013.

It found about 84 percent of them were ultra-processed, a term used for foods that no longer bear any resemblance to their original ingredients, which includes biscuits, chocolate and pizza.

Study author Wilma Waterlander used Food Standards Australia New Zealand's Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criterion, and categorised food based on how processed it was.

She found the more processed the food, the less nutritious it was.

Dr Waterlander said there was little price difference between more and less processed foods, suggesting the unhealthier option "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 said.

She said a small number of manufacturers were turning out multiple versions of similar products - for example, 30 percent of cereals are produced by just two manufacturers.

"There's a lot of the same products coming from the same big producers and basically they develop similar unhealthy foods, and lots of them," Dr Waterlander said.

The study, which was recently published in the Public Health Nutrition journal, also found a large number of food products were manufactured by the two largest supermarkets, Foodstuffs and Progressive, which owns Countdown.

Dr Waterlander said experts need to look at how the system can be improved, with both supermarkets and manufacturers playing a part.

Katherine Rich.

Katherine Rich Photo: NZ Parliament

But Katherine Rich, the chief executive of the Food and Grocery Council, did not agree with the food scoring system used in the study or its findings.

She said food companies thought deeply about their products, and New Zealanders wanted choice.

"They go into a supermarket because they want to choose from over 25,000 different products. They don't walk into a supermarket wanting only to find mung beans and rye wafers. They want to choose from a wide range, from fruits and other fresh produce to biscuits and ice cream."

They're buying veges - Countdown

A Countdown spokesperson said the supermarket provided many healthy options for customers in all its stores.

"The first department our customers see when they enter a Countdown is the fresh fruit and vegetables. Our top ten products sold over the last 12 months are bananas, tomatoes, broccoli, white bread, carrots, milk 2L, avocado, cucumber, onions and grapes.

"Some of our customers want to cook from scratch, others want convenience offerings, and we provide that choice," he said.

Countdown was also in the process of rolling out the Health Star Rating system on its brand products Homebrand, Select, Macro, Signature Range and Free From, he said.

In a statement, Foodstuffs corporate PR director Antoinette Laird said, in August 2014, the company announced it would be rolling out the Government's Health Star Rating System across its 1400 Pams and 315 Budget product lines.

"Foodstuffs supermarkets (New World, PAK'nSAVE and Four Square) are committed to ensuring customers have access to healthy eating initiatives.

"There is a lot of choice across our supermarkets and we believe the Health Star Rating is a good way of helping give customers nutritional information in order to make choices that are right for them."

Ms Laird said she was a little confused by the paper's claim that products such as cream, nuts and fruit - all single ingredient products - are ultra-processed.

"I don't think nutritional experts would agree with this assertion."

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