A new study ranking 25 of New Zealand's biggest food companies for their commitment to fighting obesity has found some are making good progress but they could all go further.

Researchers say they found large variations between the companies, which included packaged food and drinks manufacturers, fast-food restaurants and supermarkets.

The study, launched today, was conducted by 5th year University of Auckland medical student Apurva Kasture. It was funded by the Health Research Council.

The food companies were judged on their commitments to preventing obesity and improve nutrition.

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However, they were not judged on whether they met commitments or how healthy their products were. The researchers plan to measure the companies' actual performance in their next study.

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Each company was given a score card, with Nestlé, Fonterra, Coca-Cola, Mars and Unilever coming out on top.

Christian Aboud, chief executive of Nestlé New Zealand, welcomed the report's findings and said the company would look closely at where to improve.

Cutting sugar and salt in Cheerios and offering a wholegrain option for Maggi 2 Minute noodles were examples of the many changes Nestlé had made, Aboud said.

The report gave Nestlé the top score of 75 out of 100. It recommended changes including cutting portion sizes on some foods and making it clear on Nestlé's New Zealand website that it does not make political donations.

Professor Boyd Swinburn said the Advertising Standards Authority's code for marketing to children was
Professor Boyd Swinburn said the Advertising Standards Authority's code for marketing to children was "weak" and companies should go beyond the minimum standard. File photo / Tim Hales

Professor Boyd Swinburn, who supervised the study, said that many companies had committed to comply with the Advertising Standards Authority code for advertising to children and young people, but stronger action was needed.

"Companies really could go beyond the existing weak code and include children up to the age of 18 years in marketing policies and stop using promotions like cartoon characters and interactive games," he said.

Companies performed relatively well on product labelling with many, such as Countdown and Foodstuffs, committing to use Health Star Ratings on their products.

Many were also transparent about their relationships with other groups. Coca-Cola, Arnott's and Restaurant Brands were the most transparent about research funding and had publicly committed to not making political donations.

Food and beverage manufacturers and supermarkets were cutting salt and sugar in their products but this was variable and hard to measure, the researchers said.

"Nestlé has a target for lowering sodium, sugar and saturated content. Frucor Suntory commits to have one in three products sold to be low or no sugar by 2030. More companies could develop targets to reduce sodium, sugar, saturated fat, trans fat and portion sizes," they said.

Nestle, which makes Maggi 2 Minute Noodles, was ranked number 1 by Auckland University researchers for its commitments to reducing Kiwis' obesity and improving nutrition. File photo / NZHerald
Nestle, which makes Maggi 2 Minute Noodles, was ranked number 1 by Auckland University researchers for its commitments to reducing Kiwis' obesity and improving nutrition. File photo / NZHerald

The researchers also wanted more companies to limit specials on unhealthy products, make all checkouts junk-food free and for fast-food companies to stop all free refills.

The researchers said some companies had taken positive steps "in response to pressure from society" to improve their products.

But they pointed to a large variation in scores, with eight companies scoring less than 20 out of 100.

All eight companies either could not be contacted, declined to participate or didn't respond in time. Their scores were based on publicly available information - but several disputed the study.

A spokesman for bottom-ranked Goodman Fielder said the company did not participate due to "concerns we had about the methodology which did not allow for the significant work we have done in food nutrition to be included".

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Also low-ranked was McCain Foods, which makes frozen vegetables, chips and pizzas. Regional president Louis Wolthers said researchers did not contact the company. McCain had a well-established health strategy which included cutting salt, saturated fat and sugar across its products.

Burger King was ranked 20th after researchers said the company did not return its survey on time. The fast-food chain said there were "innaccuracies" in the report's findings.

Spokesman James Woodbridge said Burger King's "extensive" nutrition initiatives included displaying in-depth information on menus and removing toys and cartoon characters as incentives to sell kids' meals.

Domino's, ranked 21st, said it would closely review the report.

"More than 80 per cent of our ingredients are free of artificial colours, flavouring and preservatives, and we are carefully working on our other ingredients," a spokesman said.

McDonald's said it would update its New Zealand website to draw more attention to its nutritional commitments. Photo / 123RF
McDonald's said it would update its New Zealand website to draw more attention to its nutritional commitments. Photo / 123RF

Restaurant Brands - which owns KFC and Pizza Hut - and McDonald's were the only two fast-food companies to engage with the study. They ranked 15th and 12th respectively.

McDonald's spokesman Simon Kenny said the company welcomed the opportunity to be involved but questioned the study's methodology.

"Since the assessment, McDonald's has announced its commitment to families targets, which state future targets for the reduction of saturated fat, sugar and sodium in Happy Meals," Kenny said.

"We will be updating our website to include some specific information the researchers requested relating to McDonald's in New Zealand, and directing people to information relating to our global commitments."

Restaurant Brands, which owns KFC, said its meals are meant as an
Restaurant Brands, which owns KFC, said its meals are meant as an "occasional food". Photo / 123RF

Restaurant Brands' general marketing manager Geraldine Oldham said the company's annual corporate social responsibility report outlined progress on policies including not marketing to children, providing a range of portion sizes and cutting salt and sugar.

George Weston Foods, which makes Tip Top bread and Big Ben pies, was ranked last among those companies which engaged with the study, and 16th overall.

General manager Andrew Cummings said the company was "very committed" to consumers' health but accepted there was always more to do to address obesity.