Supermarket wars – Woolworths still healthiest, but Coles most Aussie

Woolworths is still winning the supermarket war when it comes to the healthiest home brands, but Coles has the most products showing the familiar ‘Aussie made’ kangaroo logo according to the FoodSwitch: The State of the Food Supply report.

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The George Institute for Global Health’s annual snapshot of the nation’s packaged food supply found that out of the big four supermarkets, Woolworths brands still have the highest overall healthiness rating with Coles ranked second, ALDI third, and IGA coming in as least healthy.

But Coles was crowned the most Aussie with over two thirds (68 percent) of its home brand products grown, produced or made in Australia and eligible to display the kangaroo logo. Woolworths was second with 61 percent, IGA a close third with 58 percent and ALDI bringing up the rear with 49 percent.

George Institute researchers used the government-developed Health Star Rating (HSR) criteria to rank just over 18,000 packaged food and beverage items being sold across Australia. But for the first time, the report also took an in-depth look at Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL) to see just how Aussie these leading food manufacturers really are.

Public health lawyer Dr Alexandra Jones from The George Institute for Global Health said it was disappointing to see that there had been little change in the overall healthiness of the food supply in the last two years.

“Our data suggest government-led voluntary initiatives encouraging manufacturers to make healthier packaged foods are having little effect,” she said.

The widespread manufacture, marketing and consumption of unhealthy processed and pre-prepared foods and beverages is a major contributor to Australians’ excess consumption of energy, harmful saturated and trans fats, added sugars and salt. This is leading to spiralling rates of obesity and associated chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes.

Dr Jones said that with the world moving towards policies that promote not only healthier but also more sustainable diets, there was an opportunity to look at how front-of-pack labelling could better support this.

“Just as consumers need accessible and easy to understand information to help them make healthier food choices, they are also increasingly keen to know where their food is coming from,” she said.

Updated Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL) requirements were adopted by the Australian Government in 2016 and became mandatory for most foods from July 2018.

The analysis found that products from companies such as Lactalis – with brands including Paul’s and Vaalia, and Lion Dairy and Drinks (now owned by Bega Cheese) were far more Australian than those of the major supermarkets with 95 and 87 percent of their products displaying the kangaroo logo respectively.

A limited number of products deemed ‘non-priority’ are only voluntarily required to display CoOL – these include seasoning, confectionery, biscuits and snack foods, soft drinks and sports drinks, alcoholic drinks, tea and coffee and bottled water.

Dr Jones said there was little publicly available information on why products were characterised as priority or non-priority, and it left a major gap in transparency for some of Australia’s biggest selling products.

“This might be due to historical links between CoOL and food safety scares but can no longer be justified given that consumers now want information about the origins of their shopping to help them make more sustainable choices,” she said.

“For example, Arnott’s is as Aussie as they come but with biscuits classed as ‘non-priority’ foods, the company has chosen not to give consumers the benefit of the full detail of the updated CoOL design.

“While they state that their biscuits are made in Australia, we have no idea about how much of what goes into them is actually locally sourced.”

Other manufacturers with high volume, but mostly non-priority products – Coca Cola Amatil, Schweppes and Mondelez – also had a low percentage of products displaying the full CoOL. By contrast, top manufacturers of ‘priority’ products had good uptake of the new label.

“The high uptake of CoOL by some Australian manufacturers shows that industry can and will provide important information to consumers through product labelling when they have to,” said Dr Jones.

“The contrast with uptake of HSR is clear – more than half the packaged foods on our supermarket shelves still not displaying a star rating on pack because its voluntary. It’s time we saw greater government leadership to improve the healthiness of our food supply,” she added.

“The lives of future generations depend on it.”

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