Date Published: 22 August 2019

UK packaged food healthiest in study of 12 countries

A study conducted last year and published last month1 has received much publicity in recent days, generating headlines about the healthy nature of British packaged foods:

"Britain tops healthy league table in supermarket sold food, Oxford University study finds", The Telegraph2

"British food crowned the healthiest in major global survey", Science Daily3,4

"God Save The Snacks: British Packaged Foods Named Healthiest In Global Survey", StudyFinds5

These and other6 articles cite the same report "A comparison of the healthiness of packaged foods and beverages from 12 countries using the Health Star Rating nutrient profiling system, 2013–2018" published in the journal Obesity Reviews on 22 July 2019. This describes a detailed study by 10 authors from a total of 6 countries (Australia, New Zealand, Slovenia, Mexico, Chile and Canada) who compared the healthiness of packaged foods and beverages from 12 countries using data collected during 2013-18.

The report presenting this study begins by drawing attention to evidence7 suggesting that the prevalence of diet-related chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases is increasing with increasing consumption of packaged and processed foods. This indicates the global importance of the healthiness of packaged foods and drinks. The researchers used the Australasian Health Star Rating (HSR), a system designed both to help consumers to make healthier choices and to encourage the food industry improve the quality of their products, to evalute the healthiness of packaged food items available to the public in Australia, Canada, Chile, China, India, Hong Kong, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa, the UK, and the USA. The HSR is based on a UK model that takes into account both nutrients of concern, such as the densities of energy, sodium, total sugars and saturated fat, and positive nutrients including the densities of fruit and vegetable content, protein, fibre and in some cases, calcium. Each product was assigned to a food or beverage category and mean HSR calculated a) overall, b) by category, and c) by country.

Although true, it is a vast over-simplification of a wide and detailed study to merely state that the highest (healthiest) HSR by country was that for the UK. When considering the HSR values bear in mind that they can theoretically range from 0.5 (least healthy) to 5 (healthiest).

According to this study the results by country were: UK 2.83, USA 2.82, Australia 2.81, Canada 2.74, New Zealand 2.73, South Africa 2.73, Slovenia 2.62, Mexico 2.59, Chile 2.44, China 2.43, Hong Kong 2.37, India 2.27.

Nevertheless, the result that the UK does receive the best score (however slightly) has provided an excuse for several articles celebrating packaged foods sold in the UK. The convenience of packaged foods in obvious. It is certainly good news for UK consumers to be assured that, by comparison with packaged food sold in other places, items on our supermarket shelves are relatively healthy. Even so, there remains great variation between types of food and beverages and specific products within the same general category. For example, the HSR of confectionary sold in the UK (1.05) is lower than that of every other country in the study except India (0.97), with China ranking best at 1.70.

Finally, it is worth bearing in mind a more general conclusion from this study which highlighted the relative quality of packaged foods sold in the UK, USA and Australia in particular. It suggested that nutrient profiling is a valuable tool to enable and motivate policymakers and the food industry to contribute to public health by formulating or reformulating products in such a way as to minimise risks of obesity and noncommunicable diseases (NCD)s so far as those risks are currently understood. Although improvement might seem to be more desperately needed in some places than in others, there is clearly much scope for improvement everywhere.

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