Packaged foods trigger "tsunami of dietary ill health"
Australia’s packaged foods are less healthy than those of the UK and USA, but are among the healthiest globally, an international analysis has found.
But the high levels of sugar, saturated fat, salt and kilojoules in many favourite products on supermarket shelves were potentially making us sick, with a possible “tsunami of dietary ill health” coming our way, the researchers said.
The George Institute for Global Health analysed more than 400,000 food and drink products from 12 countries and territories around the world.
The results were published in Obesity Reviews.
The countries were ranked using Australia’s Health Star Rating system, which measures the levels of the nutrients such as energy, salt, sugar and saturated fat, as well as protein, calcium and fibre, and assigns a star rating from ½ (least healthy) to 5 (the most healthy).
The study found that the UK had the highest average Health Star Rating of 2.83, followed by the US at 2.82 and Australia at 2.81.
India got the lowest rating of 2.27 followed by China at 2.43, with Chile third from the bottom at 2.44.
Lead author Dr Elizabeth Dunford said the results were concerning because packaged foods and drinks were driving a double burden of diet-related diseases in many low- and middle-income countries.
“Globally we’re all eating more and more processed foods and that’s a concern because our supermarkets shelves are full of products that are high in bad fats, sugar and salt and are potentially making us sick,” she said.
“Our results show that some countries are doing a much better job than others.
“Unfortunately, it’s the poorer nations that are least able to address the adverse health consequences that have the unhealthiest foods.”
Co-author and The George Institute Australia Acting Executive Director Professor Bruce Neal said with packaged foods progressively dominating the world’s food supply there was real cause for concern.
“Billions of people are now exposed to very unhealthy foods on a daily basis,” he said.
“The obesity crisis is just the first ripple of a tsunami of dietary ill health that is coming for us.
“We have to find a way that the food industry can profit from selling rational quantities of quality food, rather than deluging us with unhealthy junk. There are few greater priorities for human health.”
Other key study results
- China’s drinks were some of the healthiest in the survey with an average Health Star Rating of 2.9, but packaged foods scored low at just 2.39.
- South Africa scored low with its drinks at an average 1.92 Health Star Rating, while its foods came in at 2.87.
- Canada topped the list for unhealthy salt levels in foods and drinks with an average of 291 mg/100 g of sodium, with the US coming in 2nd at 279 mg/100 g.
- The UK scored best for sugar at just 3.8 g per 100 g, with Canada second best at 4.6 g per 100 g.
- China’s packaged foods and beverages had the most harmful levels of saturated fat. They also scored worst for average sugar levels at 8.5 g per 100 g (more than twice the UK’s average), with India in 2nd place at 7.3 g per 100 g.
- India’s packaged foods and drinks were most energy dense (kilojoule content 1515 kJ/100 g) and South African products were least energy dense at an average of just 1044 kJ/100 g.
The report noted that many of the world’s major food and drink manufacturers had signed up to the International Food and Beverage Alliance and made pledges to reduce levels of salt, sugar and harmful fat.
The report findings could provide an impetus for companies to improve the healthiness of their product ranges, the researchers said.
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