Supermarkets Sign Voluntary Healthy Eating Accord

Geoff SimmonsFood, Health4 Comments

Yesterday New Zealand’s top supermarket brands (including New World, Pak n Save, Four Square and Countdown) agreed to a voluntary accord to encourage healthy eating. This is a positive first step, and welcome recognition from these large companies that the food environment plays a crucial role in shaping our health. However, it is just a first step. There is much more change that is needed, including from the retailers themselves.

The Accord

The retailers in question make up the vast majority of New Zealand supermarkets and have agreed to reformulate (reducing sugar, fat and salt) and use the healthy star rating on their home brand products. They have also agreed to ensure their advertising of food to children meets ‘a high ethical standard’.

Supermarkets have led the way on healthy eating overseas too; in the United Kingdom retailers have hastened the take up of labeling of healthy foods, and some have agreed to make checkouts junk food free. They have even asked the Prime Minister to regulate them more. Some retailers such as Marks and Spencer have also undertaken large scale reformulation of their products to make them healthier. In the United States the world’s largest company Walmart also agreed to reformulate its own brand foods and implement healthy food labels. They are even working with a health insurance company to offer discounts on healthy foods.

The Food Environment

These changes both here and overseas are welcome and the retailers should be congratulated for it. There is increasing recognition of the importance of the food environment; that many of the decisions we make are influenced by our surroundings. For those people that don’t know to shop around the edges of the supermarket (the aisles contain the bulk of the highly processed fake food), this will help nudge their purchasing patterns in a healthier direction.

Ultimately these retailers don’t mind what we purchase, as long as we purchase from them. So as long as they think their customers will appreciate their efforts, this kind of voluntary accord makes sense for them.

However there is much more to be done to improve the food environment, including in our supermarkets, and not all of it makes good business sense. For example there is much more to the science of product placement than most people are unaware of. Shelf placement is highly contested, as some shelves are more lucrative than others. Eye height, the ends of rows and the checkout are particularly sought after.

Highly processed fake foods dominate these spots on the shelf because they are cheap to mass produce and manufacturers get larger margins from their sale. These margins are used to advertise and pay for the best spots in the supermarket, which in turn increases our consumption of junk food. For the same reason junk food is more likely to be on sale. How many times have you ignored your shopping list and been tempted by the 2 for 1 chocolate bikkies at the end of the row?

As part of this Accord, Countdown has offered to make one checkout aisle confectionary free. Again, this is a good start, but why not make them all confectionary free? No doubt Countdown will argue they are offering a ‘choice’, but considering one confectionary free aisle a choice shows how far from a balanced food environment we really have.

Changing the food environment is crucial to improving our health, because the vast majority of eating decisions we make each day are subconscious. Far from obesity and diabetes being a matter of individual choice (the implication being that we should blame the individual for making poor choices), food companies deliberately manipulate the environment to get us to eat more of their products. These practices need to be rolled back so that it is easy for consumers to make a healthy choice.

Supermarkets Sign Voluntary Healthy Eating Accord was last modified: October 18th, 2016 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author
Geoff Simmons

Geoff Simmons

Facebook Twitter

Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.

  • mark

    Regulation is needed by government. Like your example of insulation regulation is mostly free for taxpayer and saves us money in government spending.

    Healthy labelling is verging on fraud. Healthy stars for foods like Milo and Nutrigrain. This is beyond crazy.

    While I believe in free choice, paternalism becomes an option
    when as you mention our food choices are for many subconscious. Retailers and manufacturers wont change without a push.

    The simplicity of changing diet and exercise needs to be government priority as obesity is the new cigarettes and without change we are facing a demographic nightmare of all ages needing very expensive healthcare.

  • Kathy Anderson-Scott

    This is all very well…all that needs to be agreed on now is the definition of healthy! Low sugar? Yes…but low fat? Depends on the sort.

    Can’t come soon enough….I have written this week to my daughter’s school, they are hosting a NW sponsored breakfast club…..milo, beans and spaghetti and toast are part of the choice ….high sugar and all carbs.
    We do know what is causing obesity and diabetes don’t we…..so let’s feed the cheap dangerous junk to high school kids and expect them to make good choices later?

    I am only partially hopeful….ultimately supermarkets and the big corporations they represent are not going to be huge fans of the ‘More is Less’ principle.

    Government intervention is necessary to robustly change the direction of the nasties that are allowed in food (let’s add palm oil) and change the mindset of eating proper food…..increase the prices of the junk, it should not be cheaper to get a fast food hit, than cook a vegetable laden meal. Perhaps healthy cookery demonstrations in stores would help inspire folk by showing them how quickly good food can be produced.

    Acknowledge the addictiveness of sugar too……ban it from schools instead of allowing teachers give out sweets are rewards … some people will not get to grips with the effects of sugar until they cut it out altogether. Most do not even know how harmful it is.
    I used to work in a supermarket, until my conscience got the better of me…..how can anyone with half a brain sell caffeinated energy drinks to children who look about 9 or 10 years old?

    In my bored moments I used to look around and work out how much would be left in the store if we took out all the crap and environmentally unsustainable stuff.

    • Julie Hofer

      Beans are not all carbs. It’s a common misconception and one that needs to be dispelled. There is no better time to do so than 2016, the International Year of Pulses http://www.fao.org/pulses-2016/en/. Beans are high in micronutrients, fibre and protein. What’s not to love about them?

      Sure, they also contain some carbohydrate, or starch, but the starch is high in amylose, so it takes us longer to digest it. That means beans, and other pulses, are low Glycaemic Index (low GI) foods – we burn the energy slowly and steadily – great for blood glucose control.

      Humans have been eating a balanced diet of legumes in combination with cereals since agriculture began in different parts of the world. Think of beans and corn in the Americas, lentil/chickpea and wheat in the Middle East, soybean/adzuki bean and rice in the Far East. Baked beans (without added sugar of course) on wholemeal toast would be an excellent breakfast club option.

      • Kathy Anderson-Scott

        I think the beans that the supermarket will be providing to the school will be the cheapest and therefore the added sugar processed variety.
        I am also suspecting the bread will be cheap white rubbish that I would not even feed to ducks yet alone to impressionable young people.
        I suspect I do not subscribe to your conventional ‘healthy’ breakfast idea as it is heavily weighted towards only energy from carbs (albeit slower release than refined sugars) and with no vegetables or healthy fats ….not to mention the whole gluten argument (widely accepted that increasingly people have issues with modern processed grains), …and the western nations get fatter and sicker by the year and the same old low fat high carb diet advice is trawled as being the ‘one size fits all’ approach.