Medical researchers find a heavy load of sugar, fat and salt in Australian supermarkets

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  • Researchers find that 61% of the food on Australia supermarket shelves is ultra-processed and another 18% moderately processed.
  • They say Australia has to find a way to make junk food less profitable to food processing companies.
  • Half of all packaged foods are essentially junk foods which should only eaten occasionally.

The shelves of Australian supermarket shelves are full of products making us fat and sick, medical researchers find in the latest study.

Six out of ten Australian packaged foods are highly or ultra-processed, more than half are discretionary/junk foods and only one third are healthy, according to analysis by Sydney’s George Institute for Global Health, an independent medical research centre.

The authors of the findings published in the journal Nutrients say urgent action is needed to improve the nutritional make-up of packaged foods.

“Our research shows that Australia’s packaged food environment is full of foods laden in sugar, fat and salt that are also highly processed,” says lead researcher Michelle Crino.

“It’s not just a few packaged foods that we need to be aware of. Our supermarket shelves are full of products that are making us fat and making us sick.”

Researchers looked at more than 40,000 packaged foods ranging from breads, to sauces, confectionary, canned foods, oils and dairy products.

They determined a Health Star Rating (HSR), whether the food is a core or discretionary product and the extent of processing. They also looked at the proportion of foods meeting reformulation targets for sodium, saturated fat and sugar.

Key findings:

  • 53% of the Australian packaged food is classed as discretionary, including energy dense and nutrient-poor foods such as sweetened soft drinks/cordials/flavoured waters, biscuits, chocolate, meat pies, butter and salty snacks.
  • Just 47% are considered core, including fruit and veg, legumes, nuts and seeds, cereal grains, lean meats, fish and dairy products. These are the foods which the Australian Dietary Guidelines say should make up the majority of our diet.
  • Of the 40,664 products analysed, a third (38%) had a Health Star Rating of 3.5 or higher, which usually indicates a basic level of healthfulness.
  • 61% were found to be ultra-processed, 18% moderately processed and 21% less processed foods. Almost all (98%) convenience foods, including ready-to-eat meals, pre-prepared sauces or dressings, canned or processed meats, frozen meals and desserts, fell in the ultra-processed category.

Professor Bruce Neal, of the George Institute for Global Health, says shoppers are being bombarded with junk foods in the middle of an obesity epidemic.

“It’s a sad reflection of the state of our food industry that half of all packaged foods are essentially junk foods that we should only be eating occasionally,” he says.

“We have to find a way to make junk food less profitable. Because what works for the industry’s bottom line is a disaster for the nation’s waistline.

“Industry tell us it’s all about personal choice and free will. But, Australians haven’t chosen to be obese … because selling cheap, unhealthy food everywhere, all the time, is how industry profits are maximised. We need to work with government to find a balance between supporting industry, while also looking after our health.”

Professor Neal says this doesn’t mean putting people out of business.

“It’s just a matter of nudging choices back towards healthier options — more fresh fruit and veg in the aisles, better labelling so people know what to choose and checkout counters without the junk food. We also need manufacturers to stop adding so much salt, sugar and harmful fat during processing,” he says.

The findings come just months after a UK study in the British Medical Journal revealed that a diet high in ultra-processed foods was linked to a heightened risk of cancer.

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