By Katherine Rich, Chief Executive, New Zealand Food and Grocery Council
If you thought you were seeing more and more food products with Health Stars appearing on the supermarket aisles, you’d be right.
It’s an example of the trend by industry across many countries to give shoppers more at-a-glance information about the healthiness of the food they are buying.
It’s a trend that’s continuing. Last year alone, a massive 180,000 consumer food products around the world were reformulated to support healthier diets and lifestyles, and to address public health priorities. That’s an increase of 100,000 products in just 12 months.
In addition, more than 30,000 communities and 386,000 schools were involved in industry-led programmes that promote healthier diets and lifestyles and educate consumers on health and wellness.
It goes further. In a survey by the global Consumer Goods Forum of its 400 member retailers, manufacturers and industry associations like FGC, some 72 per cent of respondents say they are collaborating with schools, public health institutions, communities, and health and wellness professionals to provide information that supports sensible, balanced diets, good hygiene, and regular physical activity.
Those companies estimate their health and wellness initiatives reached more than 2.2 billion people last year, with programmes on promoting healthy lifestyles for children being the No 1 topic of engagement.
The report also says salt and sugar were most often targeted for removal in reformulation by food and beverage companies, while whole grains and vitamins were the most common nutrients to be added.
They’re impressive numbers, and show clearly that industry is playing a huge part in helping to tackle obesity by developing and reformulating products to make them healthier.
So, what’s New Zealand’s part in this? We’ve been actively involved, too.
Though our small market is a fraction of those global numbers, we’ve been doing our share – and it’s growing. Many of our food and beverage companies have been reformulating products where possible for some decades, but following the introduction of the voluntary Health Star Rating system in late 2014 that has ramped up considerably.
The first survey of Health Star labels by the Food and Grocery Council showed that by September 2015 some 288 products carried the stars. A number of products had been reformulated to reach as many stars as possible.
From there the total has risen: to 642 products in December 2015, 773 in March 2016, 1010 in June, 1202 in September, and 1520 in the final quarter of last year (the latest period for which numbers are available). When you add 1000 supermarket brands, that means there are right now more than 2500 products on shop shelves sporting the labels.
But it doesn’t end there. Foodstuffs and Progressive are pledging to review and reformulate their home brand products and add them to the system by the end of next year, and that could add a further 1500.
Though shopper recognition and use of the Health Stars is hard to gauge, anecdotal evidence is that shoppers are using them as intended – to compare goods within a category.
I wonder if the same will be said of the system France is about to adopt. Later this year they will introduce a five-colour nutrition label, but I’m not convinced. Many see the mix of letters and colours as quite confusing, and I agree.
By comparison, our system – devised by food safety officials, public health representatives, consumer groups, nutritionists, and FGC – is unambiguous and easy to understand.
Perhaps it’s a case of thanking our lucky stars.