Health packaged foods do not deter obesity

Convenience snacks, ready-made meals, health drinks and other processed packaged foods constitute a large chunk of aisle space in most supermarkets. But a new study shows that improving the quality of packaged foods does not translate into a decrease in the number of overweight or obese people in the population, on the contrary, obesity and overweight conditions are rising at an alarming rate worldwide.

A recent analysis of more than 40,000 processed packaged foods from 12 countries and territories around the world, found that the United Kingdom had the healthiest such foods. The tested foods, which were rated using Australia’s Health Star Rating system, saw the UK foods collectively receiving 2.83 stars, followed by foods from the US which received 2.82, and Australian foods, which came in third with 2.81 stars.

The Australian food ranking system measures levels of nutrients like calories, salt, sugar, saturated fat, protein, calcium, and fiber in each food item, which is then assigned a ranking that ranges from half a star (least healthy) to five stars (most healthy). It is perhaps telling that packaged foods from none of the countries tested even approached the ‘most-healthy’ mark.

At the other end of the scale, India took the worst spot, with a rating of 2.27 stars, and ended up just below China, with a score of 2.43 stars. Chile came in at third position from the bottom with a score of 2.44 stars.

Other unique find from the study were that Canada had the unhealthiest salt levels of all foods and drinks tested, and that China actually had the highest score for healthfulness in their drinks with 2.9 stars, but their packaged foods received only a 2.37 star rating, leading to their lower ranking. India’s packaged foods were the most energy dense, or had the most calories. South Africa, on the other hand, had the least calorie-rich foods.

But the results from the study do not correlate with other studies that show obesity rates in the UK, US, Australia and Canada are steadily rising. If consuming healthy packaged foods is not helping in curbing obesity rates, perhaps other metrics involved, including the quantity of consumption.

Globally, people are consuming more processed foods and that is a matter of concern, as these foods are usually high in bad fats, sugar and salt that could potentially make us sick. In the United States alone, more than two-thirds of adults are overweight or have obesity.

It is important to recognize the huge amount of processed packaged foods that have exploded into the market and the rate and volume at which they are consumed, especially in many wealthy industrialized nations. The problem in these countries is that for many children and adults there, packaged snacks make up a large part of their calorie consumption for the day. So, even with a higher rating of packaged snacks, it is still possible to be consuming too many calories, fat, and salt. Even the so called ‘health-snacks’ can lead to overconsumption of unhealthy calories, fat and salt.

Processed prepackaged foods are marketed for their convenience and many of them contain high levels of sugar, salt, preservatives, and other chemicals to enhance their shelf-life, texture, smell, and aroma. If there are times that you need to consume packaged foods, try to buy foods that are low- or no-sugar added, have higher protein content to make you feel fuller longer, and fewer added ingredients. The ingredients list should read more like a recipe and less like a chemical equation; the simpler the ingredients, the better.

The researchers behind the new study warn that their findings should not send the wrong message that packaged foods are actually better options than whole foods. While the rankings show that packaged foods in some countries are healthier than others, they certainly are not healthy compared to diet of vegetables, fruits, fish, and lean meats.