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Pioneering study gives snapshot of food environments

A major cause of New Zealand’s high rates of obesity has been mapped in a world-first study from the University of Auckland.

The study provides a full picture of the healthiness of New Zealand food environments.

The study which was conducted by INFORMAS (International Network for Food and Obesity/NCFs Research, Monitoring and Action Support) found that food environments, especially children’s environments, were largely unhealthy, and policy implementation was low.

Food industry commitments are relatively weak, more than half of the packaged food supply is unhealthy and children and young people are exposed to considerable marketing of unhealthy foods through all media channels were some of the findings.

Significantly, those living in poorer areas were found to be exposed to about three times as many takeaways, fast food outlets and convenience stores; more ads for unhealthy foods around schools and more shelf space devoted to unhealthy foods in supermarkets than wealthier neighbourhoods.

HPF’s Pacific strategist Dr Viliami Puloka commended the study for approaching the issue at a policy level.

Dr Puloka said this approach was necessary because the focus was to highlight that it was the ‘environment’ that matters and that it has a strong influence on personal/individual choices and lifestyle behaviours.

“If you are waking up in an area with half-a-dozen fast food outlets next door to you it is hard to keep away … you have to be almost superhuman to resist.

“The manufacturers and businesses major food companies have done their homework. They know where the vulnerable people are.”

Dr Puloka said it was interesting to see the results from the study’s measurements of the length of shelf space dedicated to different products in supermarkets.

According to the research the length of shelf space allocated to sets of unhealthy and healthy indicator foods showed an overall ratio of 0.42 (1m of unhealthy to 0.42m healthy indicator foods). In more deprived areas the shelf length ratio was more weighed towards unhealthy foods (0.38) than in less deprived areas (o.44).

Dr Puloka emphasised the need for consumers to band together and push for healthier options in supermarkets and other outlets.

“We in health promotion will continue to share our knowledge and understanding … we need to create a hunger for healthy food so there is a demand. If we stand together and believe we have the power to influence these major players in the food industry

“It is already happening.  Fast food outlets now sell salads and wraps. Healthier options in a number of places are now available,” added Dr Puloka.

On a bright note the study found that DHBs were taking a leadership role when it came to health food choices and that the nutrition policies of DHBs were much stronger and more comprehensive. An analysis of DHB policies in 2017 found an average strength score of 58 per cent and comprehensive scores of 70 per cent.

This was in contrast to schools, which the survey revealed had substantial scope to improve school food policies and practices. Only 40 per cent of schools had a written food policy and these policies had very low strength scores (average 3 per cent) and comprehensiveness scores (average 16 per cent).

“People choose their diets from the food environments around them and when these are dominated by unhealthy foods and drinks, it is no surprise that our overall diets are unhealthy and our obesity rates are so high,” said Professor Boyd Swinburn who led the three-year study funded by the Health Research Council and the Heart Foundation.

“Of the many sub-studies in this project, several areas emerged where action could really make a difference,” said Professor Swinburn.

“The food in schools was surprisingly unhealthy given all the publicity about rising childhood obesity and food marketing to children was heavily dominated by unhealthy foods across all forms of media and used techniques to engage children such as premium offers and cartoon characters. Food labelling was also a problem with slow uptake of the Health Star Rating system and many unhealthy foods carrying positive nutrition claims.”

Professor Kathryn McPherson of the Health Research Council agreed that ‘choice’ was a complex topic and, for many people, making good food choices was hampered by strong environmental cues such as which food is most readily available.

“We welcome the important findings of this research which should inform decisions by schools, policy makers, and indeed food manufacturers.”