Look who’s fat and failing

The George Institute for Global Health has analysed more than 400,000 food and drink products from 12 countries and territories around the world. The country deemed the healthiest is not Australia. We did not even finish second.

The global survey ranked countries according to our Health Star Rating (HSR) system, which measures the levels of nutrients in terms of energy, salt, sugar and saturated fat, as well as protein, calcium and fibre. It then assigns a star rating from ½ (least healthy) to five (most healthy).

If the UK conjures images of spotted dick and toad in the hole and other similarly stodgy dishes, then think again. It has topped the charts, the US was second and Australia third.

The survey found that the UK had the highest average HSR of 2.83, followed by the US on 2.82 and Australia on 2.81. In the bottom three were Chile (2.44), China (2.43) and India (2.27).

Report 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 countries.

“Globally, we’re all eating more and more processed foods and that’s a concern because our supermarket shelves are full of products that are high in bad fats, sugar and salt and are potentially making us sick,” she said.

Co-author and acting executive director of The George Institute Australia Professor Bruce Neal said that with packaged foods progressively dominating the world’s food supply, the results were a 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.”

In Australia, a leading health lawyer and a senior lecturer are agitating for strong national leadership on diet-related health, particularly given that nearly two-thirds of adults here are overweight or obese.

Alexandra Jones and Belinda Reeve say that the Federal Government’s reliance on voluntary measures and its collaborative partnerships with the food industry are failing to produce the desired results.

They say there is evidence that such initiatives suffer from limited uptake by food businesses, a failure to manage commercial conflicts of interest, and a lack of transparency and accountability in governance processes.

“The Health Star Rating, for example, has now been in place for five years but appears on less than one-third of all products, mostly those that score at the upper end of its five-star scale,” they said.

“This limits its value in guiding consumers towards healthier choices.

“The benefits of legislation, in contrast, include mandatory compliance, with legal penalties available for non-compliance, and formal, transparent processes of enactment and amendment.

“The law can reach entire populations and create healthier environments in a way that is significantly more difficult for voluntary measures. This is one reason why 10 countries, including recent adopters Chile, Peru, Israel, Sri Lanka and Uruguay now have mandatory front-of-pack labels.”

Ms Jones and Dr Reeve say that Australia is lagging behind in using the law to improve diet-related health.

“Legal innovations overseas demonstrate that the re-elected Federal Government should give serious consideration to more hard-hitting – and effective – measures on nutrition. Now more than ever, we need legal change that supports Australians in living longer, healthier lives.”

Are you conscientious about looking beyond the star ratings on packaged foods? Do you believe the Government needs to show stronger leadership? Or is it up to the individual?

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Written by Janelle Ward

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