As “gatekeepers” to most Australians’ food and beverage shopping, the nation’s four major supermarket chains can play a much more active role in people’s health, a new report suggests.

A study led by The George Institute for Global Health, in collaboration with the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University, analysed more than 32,000 packaged food items on sale across Australia, using the government-developed Health Star Rating (HSR) criteria (which assesses the overall nutritional profile of packaged food and assigns ratings from ½ star to five stars) to rank the healthiness of both own-label and branded products.

The FoodSwitch: The State of the Food Supply report revealed that Woolworths is the least unhealthy major supermarket in Australia when it comes to own-label foods, followed by Coles, ALDI and IGA.

But the average HSRs for all four were below the 3.5 stars that is the minimum for a packaged food to be considered “healthy”.

The study also found that ALDI’s own brand products were 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.

Among brands, The A2 Milk Company, Sanitarium and Nudie Foods topped the rannkings 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).

Professor Bruce Neal of The George Institute for Global Health called for urgent government action. “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,” he said.

The George Institute wants Health Star Ratings to become mandatory on all packaged food items on sale across Australia and clear targets set for the reformulation of unhealthy products.

It also argues that food 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.

Sourced from The George Institute; additional content by WARC staff