Diet, Family and child

Snapshot of NZ food environments an eye-opener

A major cause of New Zealand’s very high rates of obesity has been mapped in a world-first study from the University of Auckland providing a full picture of the healthiness of New Zealand food environments. The study was funded by the Health Research Council and the Heart Foundation of NZ.

The results were summarised in the executive summary  and the full report, which was launched by Professor John Potter, Chief Science Advisor to the Ministry of Health at a seminar on July 11. Professor Boyd Swinburn, University of Auckland, presented the results of the study.

Some of the findings included:

Government implementation of healthy food policies:

In 2014 and 2017, public health experts rated the extent of implementation of 23 policy and 24 infrastructure support good practice indicators compared to international best practice. Overall implementation scores were moderate at 43% in 2014 and 48% in 2017.

Some of the priority recommendations from the 2017 experts:

Food composition: Set targets for nutrients of concern (sodium, saturated fat, sugar)

Food labelling: Strengthen the Health Star Rating System and make it mandatory

Food marketing: Regulate unhealthy food marketing to children in media

Food prices: Implement a 20% tax on sugary drinks

Food company commitments to improving population nutrition:

The comprehensiveness and transparency of commitments of the 25 largest NZ food companies (supermarkets, food and beverage manufacturers, quick service restaurants) was assessed. There was a wide range of scores from 0% to 75% with the top five being Nestle, Fonterras, Coca-Cola, Mars and Unilever. The bottom five were Goodman Fielder, Hellers, Griffin’s Foods, Pita Pit and Domino’s.

Composition and labelling of packaged foods:

Analyses of over 13,000 NZ-packaged foods (2014-2016) showed that 83 per cent were classified as ultra-processed. 71 were classified as not suitable for marketing to children using WHO-Europe nutrient criteria, and 59 per cent had an HSR of <3.5 stars. The HSR labelling system was introduced in June 2014, but by March 2016, only five percent of products carried the HSR label. There has been slow uptake of the HSR by companies, yet nutrition claims promoting the “healthiness” of products are widespread even on less healthy products.

Unhealthy food marketing to children:

TV: Average of 8.0 unhealthy food ads per hour during child-peak viewing times. (6-9pm)

Magazines: 43% of branded food references in teen mags were for unhealthy foods

Around schools: A median of nine ads for unhealthy foods per km2

Food provision in settings:

Schools: Only 40% of schools had a written food policy and these policies had very low strength scores (avg 3%) and comprehensiveness scores (avg 16%). There is substantial scope to improve school food policies and practices for healthier school food policies.

Hospitals: All DHBs committed to remove sugar-sweetened beverages by January 2016 from their hospitals and premises and to develop healthy food service policies. DHBS are on a strong path to improve their food environments.

Food retail within communities and inside supermarkets

There were 14% more potential “food swamps” (high relative density of unhealthy food outlets) in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived.

Only 27% of supermarkets had at least 20% of checkouts free of ‘junk’ food placements. 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 weighted towards unhealthy foods.

Cost of healthier versus less healthy foods, meals and diets

The dollar price of takeaways for a family of four was higher than the equivalent home-cooked meal by an average of $8.20 and $8.50 respectively.

Overall healthy meals and diets can be constructed for a similar cost as takeaways and the current diet, but food in general is relatively unaffordable for those on low income.

Go to www.informas.org for the full report.