11:30am Wednesday 08 July 2020

Healthy food choices under scrutiny

The study is led by Associate Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu, from the National Institute for Health Innovation at The University of Auckland’s School of Population and Health. The investigation team will include leading researchers from both The University of Auckland and Otago University, as well as input from the George Institute for Global Health and Oxford University.

The research programme was able to go ahead after successfully gaining nearly $5 million funding, in the Health Research Council’s latest round, to investigate effective interventions and policies to improve population nutrition and health.

Unhealthy diet plays a role in 11,000 deaths each year in New Zealand, and healthier diets are important in preventing common diseases like heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes.

“Supporting people to make healthier food choices has important health benefits,” says Dr Ni Mhurchu. “We aim to produce world-leading comprehensive evidence on effective strategies to support healthier diets.”

This research programme will assess the impact of different ways to improve diets including:

• the introduction of simple front-of-pack nutrition labels
• changes in food prices (making healthy foods cheaper and unhealthy foods more expensive)
• changes to the composition of foods to reduce salt and saturated fat and
• restriction of food marketing to children.

These approaches are difficult to implement and evaluate in everyday life, so the research team will use leading-edge technologies to test interventions and measure their effects on diets and long-term health.

“Our research will provide vital information directly relevant to national and international policies on the most effective and cost-effective ways to improve population diets and health,” she says.

“For example, governments throughout the world, including New Zealand, are proposing to implement front-of-pack nutrition labelling systems,” says Dr Ni Murchu. “But there is almost no evidence regarding the impact of front-of-pack labels on the foods people buy.”

“Similarly, little is known about children’s exposure to non-TV advertising and there has been no quantification of children’s exposure to the full range of marketing media.”

“We live in obesogenic environments, and pricing of food is a major factor,” she says.
“Soda taxes, saturated fat taxes and healthy food subsidies are increasingly proposed as a policy response to poor nutrition, and determining the health effect (and cost) of these, and other price mechanisms, is a key policy issue.”

“At the heart of answering these important policy questions of our time are price elasticities. They are woefully inadequate,” she says. “We propose to improve this situation.”

During the study, the team will ensure there is Maori and Pacific representation on the Programme Advisory Group and have oversight from a Maori perspective throughout the programme with analysis by ethnicity and income for all interventions.

The University of Auckland

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