Almost 85 per cent of packaged foods on supermarket shelves are classified as being "ultra-processed". Photo / Brett Phibbs
Almost 85 per cent of packaged foods on supermarket shelves are classified as being “ultra-processed”. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Ultra-processed foods – high in sugar, fat and salt – make up the majority of packaged foods available in New Zealand supermarkets, a study has found.

The research found almost 85 per cent of packaged foods on supermarket shelves are classified as being “ultra-processed” – foods that have been altered by sweeteners, salt and fat; turning them into products sometimes almost unrecognisable from the original items. Foods such as frozen potato products – fried chips and hash browns – as well as cordial bases, flavoured drinks, meat alternatives and jam spreads are considered ultra-processed.

The two other packaged food categories are minimally processed products, such as fruit and vegetables, and culinary processed items such as flour, plain noodles, plain dairy milk and edible oils.

The study looked at packaged foods taken from four major supermarkets in Auckland in 2011 (just over 6000 products) and 2013 (13,406 products). Study author Dr Wilma Waterlander, of the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health, said results found up to 84 per cent (in 2011) and 83 per cent (2013) of packaged foods in supermarkets fell under the ultra-processed category.

“This poses an [unnecessarily] large exposure of unhealthy food products to New Zealand consumers and … shows potential to create a healthier supermarket food environment,” she said.

There was no significant price difference between ultra-processed and minimally processed foods – making it appear more convenient to buy the ultra-processed products as it was seemingly the better deal.

A large number of ultra-processed items were manufactured by Foodstuffs and Progressive Enterprises – the two largest supermarket owners in New Zealand.

Dr Waterlander said it was up to supermarket bosses to make changes; by limiting the processed foods available and cutting back on space for ultra-processed products.

Foodstuffs declined to comment on the report yesterday, but a spokeswoman for Countdown, which is owned by Progressive Enterprises, said they provided customers with many healthy choices.

“The first department our customers see when they enter a Countdown is the fresh fruit and vegetables. Our stores have dedicated shelf space for organic and health food products.”

In the last 12 months, the supermarket’s top 10 products sold were: bananas, tomatoes, broccoli, white bread, carrots, milk (2L), avocados, cucumbers, onions and grapes.

The spokeswoman said processed foods did play a big part in their stores, adding: “Some of our customers want to cook from scratch – others want convenience offerings and we provide that choice.

Auckland nutritionist Jessica Campbell, of Body Balance Nutrition, said the convenience factor played a big part in shopping habits.

“The problem [is] those ultra-processed foods tend to be very energy-dense. Low fibre, low protein, low micro-nutrients and high fat and salt – not conducive with a healthy eating approach,” Ms Campbell said.

The Herald spoke to a few people outside New World, Queen St, to see what they felt about processed foods available in supermarkets.

Lynn Colbert, Grey Lynn

“I agree. I think we have a lot of processed foods available. When I go to the supermarket, I’m only there to buy toothpaste and detergent.

“I buy all my fruit and vege from an orchard because it’s cheaper and the quality is better. The light’s always peculiar at [a supermarket] and you can never tell how long the food has been out.

“I’m a baker, so I spend most of my days working with sugar. But if I want to eat something sweet I’m going to make it – as opposed to some horrible chocolate bar in a wrapper. Sometimes I’ll drive out to Kumeu to buy my food. It’s good to know I’m buying locally from farmers and getting peaches off their trees – and not getting food sourced from far away.”

Debbie Barnes and Richard Jones, Auckland

“I guess it’s not something we think about too much. Sometimes it’s easier to go for the processed foods because it’s faster,” Mr Jones said.

The couple had just bought some milk for their six-week old son Noah and a chicken for dinner.

Looking at his son, Mr Jones said: “We’d like to buy healthier foods because of him and being better about our food choices.”

Katy D, Auckland

“I just got some lettuce, bananas, beans and peanut butter. I think the supermarket had a good balance of foods. I like to buy healthily, so I don’t usually go for [processed] stuff. It’s just the lifestyle I have.

“People will be able to make their own choices. They don’t have to buy processed foods.”

Ged Halliday, Auckland

“I think the supermarkets provide a good mix of fresh and processed foods. I don’t usually buy processed – I’ll try to get fresh stuff as opposed to something in a tin.

“But I know a lot of people will go for processed foods because it’s more convenient. For me, if I know I’ve got to be somewhere then I’ll get something [processed] or in a tin just because I know I need to eat.”

Alison Chapman, Auckland

“I’m from London and there is a lot more fresh food – fruit and vegetables – available at supermarkets here than the ones back home.

“I’ve noticed there are a lot of ready-made and low-fat meals on sale, which is also the case in London. I like the supermarkets here as they’ve got a lot of foods sourced locally, which is how I think it should be.”

NZ Herald