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Should supermarkets curb
the choice for shoppers?
n the modern age of mobile devices and
predictive text spelling, mistakes aren’t
considered to be such a sin, but when
university academics present themselves as
experts on the food industry and can’t even
spell Coca-Cola correctly (“Coco Cola”), it
doesn’t bode well for the rest of the academic paper.
Following an analysis of an Auckland University
research paper (published recently in Public Health
Nutrition) that led to widespread reports that 83%
of packaged supermarket foods were unhealthy,
spelling the name of the 128-year-old brand was
the least of the authors’ oversights.
The extraordinary claim that 83% of such goods
are unhealthy is based largely on significant flaws
in the research’s methodology. The report reaches
these conclusions by misusing the Nutrient
Profiling Scoring Criterion (NPSC) developed by
Food Standards Australia New Zealand solely for
the regulation of health and nutrient claims. It’s not
a food scoring system “to determine healthiness”,
as the authors claim, and by misusing it they have
created a totally misleading result.
What’s more, they took the system and made
some arbitrary and ad hoc modifications due to
limitations of their available data. They decided to
ignore the important part of the calculation that
gives foods good ‘points’ for containing fruit, nuts,
vegetables, legumes and fibre. Is it any wonder the
results were disappointing?
The paper creates the impression that ‘ultra-
processed’ foods are automatically ‘bad’, which
is completely false. Those who took the trouble
to read it rather than just rely on Auckland
University’s public relations release were shocked
to see the sorts of foods caught up in so-called ‘bad’
food category: cheese, yoghurt, frozen and canned
vegetables, bread, coffee, tea, breakfast cereals,
pasta, rice meals, fish pies, breakfast spreads like
Marmite, Vegemite and jams, and nut and fruit
mixes. These are all foods that most people regard
as part of a balanced diet.
Take breakfast cereals as an example. A recent
review published by the American Society for
Nutrition says cereal is an important part of a
balanced diet and that regular consumption is
associated with a lower BMI and a lower risk of
being overweight or obese, with reduced risk
of type 2 diabetes (by 24%) and cardiovascular
disease (by 20-28%), and can help lower
cholesterol, among other benefits.
It’s the breakfast cereal category that was the
most maligned. The paper made the wild claim that
cereals were “most likely to be adversely associated
with non-communicable diseases” – a suggestion
so surprising that FGC checked the Lancet paper
cited as evidence to back the claim. Embarrassingly
for the research authors, the Lancet paper doesn’t
mention breakfast cereals at all!
There were also fundamental errors about the
structure of the breakfast cereal category – again
not a sin, but indicative once again of how little
the authors knew about the grocery sector. The
paper asserts that New Zealand’s “top” breakfast
cereal manufacturer is Ozone Organics, apparently
with 51 products, two brand lines and 16.4%
of all cereal products. In fact, Ozone Organics
is a beverage maker and is unknown in the
breakfast aisle to any of the major breakfast cereal
manufacturers or our biggest supermarket chain.
As those in the grocery sector (and frankly more
of the general public) know, Sanitarium and
Kellogg’s are the market leaders in a number of
products, both by market share and volume. What
has probably happened is that the researchers
accidently attributed Sanitarium’s entire stable of
products to an unrelated tiny manufacturer.
Most suggestions in the paper were divorced
from reality, but it was its conclusion – that
supermarkets should artificially curb choice for
shoppers by reducing the number of certain foods
on shelf – that was the most bizarre.
And it’s here that some perspective on the role
of supermarkets and packaged foods is sorely
needed. When families go to the supermarket they
want fruit, vegetables and other fresh produce,
but they also want bread, cheese, biscuits, snacks
and treats. They want to choose from more than
25,000 products, ranging from staple foods (which
hopefully form the bulk of the diet) to ice-cream
and chocolate. That’s the point of going to a
supermarket – to get everything at one time.
NZ Food & Grocery Council
‘BAD’, WHICH IS
44 FMCG BUSINESS - SEPTEMBER 2015
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