30 July 2015

The latest research from Auckland University on packaged foods in New Zealand supermarkets is another disappointing example of food politicking dressed up as academic research, says NZ Food & Grocery Council Chief Executive Katherine Rich.

“But what’s even more disappointing is that the paper is flawed due to its misuse of a specific food scoring system (the Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criterion – NPSC) that was developed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand solely for the regulation of health and nutrient claims about foods.”

The research, entitled 'Ultra-processed foods have the worst nutrient profile, yet they are the most available packaged products in a sample of New Zealand supermarketsLuiten, Ingrid Steenhuis, Helen Eyles, Cliona Ni Mhurchu, and Wilma Waterlander, and published in the online journal Public Health Nutrition, in July.

Katherine Rich has responded in a letter to the research, and this has been published by the journal (see her letter at the end of this article).

Mrs Rich says the NPSC is not a food scoring system for the general food supply or ‘to determine healthiness’, as the paper claims. 

“The new Health Star Rating System (HSR) has been developed for this purpose, and while the NPSC provided a starting point for the HSR, it was quite radically modified for its new use. By completely misusing the NPSC, the authors of the Auckland University paper have created a misleading result.

“For example, according to the research, ‘ultra-processed’ food includes bread, frozen and canned vegetables, breakfast cereal, dried fruit, cheese and yoghurt. These are foods that most people would agree are part of a healthy and balanced diet.

“Research design flaws aside, even if the different results are of passing interest then the conclusions remain divorced from the reality of what supermarkets provide to New Zealanders – thousands of choices and the convenience of buying many necessities under one roof.  

“When New Zealanders do their weekly shop for their families they go to a supermarket and choose from more than 25,000 different products, ranging from staple foods, which hopefully form the bulk of the diet, to treats such as ice-cream and chocolate. 

“People definitely want a wide range of choices, so the suggestion in the paper that supermarkets should artificially curb choice by reducing the number of certain foods is quite bizarre.

“Expecting supermarkets to reduce the supply of high-calorie products such as pavlova, jam or chocolate biscuits because they aren’t health foods would not be supported by the general public.  What are they suggesting? That supermarkets cull the chocolate biscuits and offer just water crackers? That’s not the way people live.

“If a shopper did a weekly shop and ate just processed foods like chips, soda and biscuits all day then no one in a million years would suggest that’s a healthy balanced diet.

“Some perspective is sorely needed here. When families go to the supermarket they want fruits, vegetables and other fresh produce, but they also want to buy other foods like bread, cheese, biscuits, snacks and treats. That’s the whole point of going to a supermarket – to get everything a family needs at one time.

“Applying the NPSC to foods like ice-cream in an attempt to classify its so-called healthiness value is completely misusing the classification system for a misleading result.

“Everyone knows that pavlova and chocolate biscuits are not health foods, and manufacturers would never pretend they are by making such a health claim. This research gives supermarkets a black mark simply for having these products on offer.”

Mrs Rich says the comments in the paper made about breakfast cereals are also completely misleading.

“There are many healthful breakfast choices, and shoppers are now able to make a choice using the Health Star Rating system which is currently being rolled out on packaging. Cereals as a group have embraced the HSR more than any other food category so far.

“The mention of Ozone Organics as one of the top two companies in the breakfast cereal category is an obvious error in the paper. The main players are Sanitarium, Kelloggs, Hubbards, Harraways, Nestle, and Smartfoods, which all provide a wide range of good breakfast options for New Zealanders.

“Finally, a small point but one for the hypocrisy file. This week, Auckland University’s researchers point out “that price may form a barrier to buying healthier food, particularly for people on a low socioeconomic status”, a point that FGC strongly supports. However, last week, the same academics were calling for a blanket 20 per cent food tax on bread, milk, eggs, dairy and meat – one of the most regressive taxes ever to be proposed for New Zealand.

“FGC consistently makes the point that food taxes hurt the poor most, so on this one point perhaps the paper does make some sense.”

See the Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criterion on FSANZ’s website here.

The full research is not publicly available but an abstract of it is on the Public Health Nutrition website here.

Katherine Rich's letter to Public Health Nutrition.