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.
A comprehensive study of food composition, labelling, marketing, and prices as well as food in schools and retail outlets found that food environments were predominantly unhealthy. In addition, the study found that the policies and actions by government and the food industry to improve the healthiness of food environments were relatively weak. No country has so extensively mapped their food system, making this study an international first.
“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 3-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.”
Some of the key finds from the study included:
- Only 40 per cent of schools had a food policy but even those policies were very weak and not comprehensive. Over 90 per cent of schools used unhealthy food for fundraising and 42 per cent sold sugary drinks. Within ‘school zones’ (500m from the school gate), there were an average of 2.4 takeaways or convenience stores and 9 outdoor ads for unhealthy foods.
- Food marketing to children showed: 8 ads per hour for unhealthy foods during children’s peak TV viewing times; 43 per cent of food ads in teen magazines were for unhealthy foods; 18 per cent of food companies had designated children’s sections on their websites; nearly three quarters of less healthy breakfast cereals for children used promotional characters on the package.
- About a quarter of less healthy packaged foods carried nutrition claims and the small percentage of products with Health Stars tended to be the healthier products.
- Major disparities were seen in food environments. Compared to more advantaged neighbourhoods, the disadvantaged neighbourhoods had: 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.
“You don’t have to look far to see why we have such big health disparities in the rates of obesity, diabetes, dental caries and even mental health problems,” said Swinburn. “Improving food environments through government and food industry actions would go a long way to breaking the cycles of poverty and poor health.”
A notable example of leadership was the progress that District Health Boards were making in improving the food environments within hospitals. However, there is considerable scope for greater government and industry leadership. The overall ratings for the degree of government action compared to international best practice were 43 per cent in 2014 and 48 per cent in 2017 and the median ratings for commitments on reformulation among the top 25 food companies was only 34 per cent.
Professor Kathryn McPherson of the Health Research Council, says ‘choice’ is a complex topic and, for many people, making good food choices is 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.”
The full report and executive summary are available at: www.informas.org/nz-food-environment-study/