The study based on large, regular surveys of food composition provides a comprehensive, quantitative assessment of the nutrient profile of packaged foods in Australia and New Zealand.
It was published this week in the international journal, Public Health Nutrition.
In the study, nutrition information data was collected from food packages in major New Zealand and Australian supermarkets and was assessed using a regionally accepted nutrient profiling scoring standard.
The proportion of products eligible to display health claims was quantified along with the associations between each product’s score and energy density, saturated fat, sugar and salt content.
“The few healthy choices available in key staple food categories is a concern”, says study leader, Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu. “Dietary risk factors such as high salt and high saturated fat, low fruit and vegetable, and excess energy intakes, accounted for 11 percent of health loss in New Zealand in 2006. That is more than the burden of disease due to smoking (nine percent),” she says.
Improving diets and reducing salt intakes are priorities for global action following the United Nations high level meeting on non-communicable diseases in 2011 and are recommended as ‘best-buys’ for reducing deaths from these diseases.
“Processed foods contribute about three-quarters of dietary energy and nutrients consumed in high-income countries, so consumer food choices and the nutritional makeup of processed foods have enormous potential to influence dietary intakes,” says Professor Ni Mhurchu.
“Improvements in nutritional quality of foods through healthier product reformulation could significantly improve people’s diets,” she says. “Effective front-of-pack nutrition labelling that provides people with clear information and empowers them to make healthier food choices is another cost-effective way to improve people’s diets.”
The study scored 23,596 packaged food and non-alcoholic drinks, (15,219 in Australia and 8,377 in New Zealand).
Across both countries only 45 percent of foods assessed were deemed healthy enough to carry health claims but Australia (at 47 percent) did better than New Zealand, (at 41 percent).
“Australia had a higher proportion of foods classified as healthy compared with New Zealand, largely driven by the healthier nutritional profile of Australian non-alcoholic drinks, snack foods, and meat products,” she says.
“If we expect New Zealanders to get the healthy balance right we need to give them the opportunity and tools to do so”, says Professor Ni Mhurchu. “Some food companies are already working to improve the nutritional profile of their products, but much more needs to be done.”
Professor Ni Mhurchu is urging New Zealand to work harder to address this public health priority through strong government leadership, engagement with the food industry to improve the nutritional profile of foods, and effective implementation of the Health Star Rating labelling system.
The study was led by the National Institute for Health Innovation (NIHI), University of Auckland, in collaboration with the George Institute for Global Health, Australia. The analyses were funded by a University of Auckland summer studentship.
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