In the battle of the own brands, Woolworths tops the list as the healthiest

New research has revealed Woolworths is the healthiest major supermarket in Australia when it comes to ‘own-label’ foods according to the FoodSwitch: The State of the Food Supply report.

The study led by The George Institute for Global Health, in collaboration with the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University, found Coles ranked second, ALDI third and IGA came last when comparing the healthiness of their own-label ranges.

More than 32,000 packaged food items on sale across Australia were analysed as part of an annual snapshot. The new report, which ranks the healthiness of Australia’s leading food and drinks manufacturers, also found almost half of all processed foods on supermarket shelves are discretionary foods - foods that are not a necessary part of a person’s diet.

Researchers used the government developed Health Star Rating (HSR) criteria to rank the healthiness of processed items from 25 different food manufacturers such as Heinz, Kellogg’s and Nestle, plus the major supermarkets’ own brands which can account for around 30 per cent of all products in store. The HSR system assesses the overall nutritional profile of packaged food and assigns ratings from ½ star to five stars as a standard way to compare similar packaged foods.

For supermarket own brand products, Woolworths came out on top with an average HSR of 3.2, Coles’ average was 3.0, ALDI 2.7 and IGA 2.6. Only around four in 10 of IGA’s own brand products could be considered healthy i.e. with an HSR of 3.5 and above. Meanwhile ALDI had the highest proportion of discretionary foods on the shelves – over 50% of their range. ALDI’s own brand products were also the most ultra-processed – foods that usually combine many ingredients, such as sugar, oils, fats, salt, anti-oxidants, stabilizers and preservatives which have also been significantly processed to promote their taste, convenience and shelf life.

The healthiest food brands were found to be The A2 Milk Company, Sanitarium and Nudie Foods with a Health Star Rating of 4.2, 4.1 and 4.1 respectively. At the bottom of the list with a HSR of 1.2 were Bundaberg Drinks and Mondelez whose portfolio of brands includes Cadbury, Oreo, BelVita and Philadelphia. Researchers used The George Institute’s FoodSwitch database, which contains nutritional information on more than 90,000 packaged food products to analyse the data.

Professor Bruce Neal of The George Institute for Global Health said government action is urgently needed considering any significant improvements in the overall healthiness of the food supply in Australia are yet to be seen. “We need the government to take real action and focus their efforts on helping manufacturers and retailers to make our foods healthier,” he said. “Getting healthier foods on the shelves will be key to curbing the epidemic of obesity and diet-related ill health blighting Australia. Every day of inaction is putting the health of millions of Australians at risk.”

Key recommendations from the report:

  • Health Star Ratings should be mandatory on all packaged food items on sale across Australia – consumers have the right to know about the healthiness of the foods they are purchasing. Until then, people can download the FoodSwitch app to see the HSR for most packaged foods.
  • The Healthy Food Partnership (HFP) must set clear targets and timelines for the reformulation of all unhealthy food categories and monitor progress against them. The Partnership must ensure adequate resources are provided to support implementation and monitoring of progress. Reformulation targets are currently under review, and we support Partnership efforts to ensure targets are ambitious, achievable and timely.
  • Food manufacturers (including retailers with own brand products) should benchmark the healthiness of their portfolios against best-in-category equivalents for levels of energy, saturated fat, sugar and sodium – food manufacturers must take responsibility for the healthiness of all the foods they are making and marketing.
  • Food retailers should take a more active role in improving the healthiness of the Australian food supply. Retailers could set minimum requirements for the healthiness of the foods they stock, merchandise and promote in-store and could provide HSR shelf labelling for all products.

Download 'FoodSwitch: The State of the Food Supply report' (PDF 2MB)

“Food retailers have a huge number of products and the power to significantly impact on the healthiness of the food supply, as they are the gatekeepers to the majority of food and beverage purchases made in Australia,” said co-author Associate Professor Gary Sacks, of the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University. “This report shows clear opportunities for manufacturers and retailers to make significant improvements to the healthiness of the food supply.”

The FoodSwitch mobile app helps consumers make better food choices by providing simple health information by scanning a product barcode with a Smartphone camera. As well as providing information on the energy, fat, sugar and salt of a food, it also displays its HSR and suggests healthier alternatives to switch to by comparing its nutrient profile against similar products.

The FoodSwitch app is available for download from iTunes and Google.