More than half of the packaged food in our supermarkets is unhealthy. New research reveals that even what we think is good for us is often saturated in sugar, salt and fats.

Only one third of dairy, meat and bread products could be described as healthy, the Auckland University research concluded.

And even packaged fruit and vegetables failed to meet health standards 29 per cent of the time.

The study's authors say the findings of so few healthy choices among our staples is a concern for a nation battling obesity issues.

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They want a health star rating system introduced, a move backed by Consumer New Zealand, which claims the Government is turning a blind eye to obesity.

"This study proves if New Zealand wants to lift the health of its citizens, better information needs to be provided," said Consumer chief executive Sue Chetwin.

The research analysed the content of more than 23,000 packaged food and drink items, which had nutrition details on the pack, at supermarkets across Australasia.

Researchers rated which of those met a standard that could be considered healthy, according to criteria set by Food Standards Australia New Zealand. They found 41 per cent of foods met the standard in New Zealand. Australia fared better with 47 per cent.

Snack foods, confectionery, sauces and spreads rarely met the healthy standard. Cereals missed health standards in 40 per cent of cases, but researchers found 80 per cent of convenience foods - soups, pizzas and ready meals - were eligible to carry health claims.

But the poor performance of "key staples" shocked them most.

Researcher Cliona Ni Mhurchu, a professor of population nutrition at the university, said setting new standards for levels of salt, sugar and fat - something happening in Australia - would rapidly improve nutritional quality. "For example, with bread, it tends to have very high levels of salt and that's obviously a negative nutrient."

In Australia the Government and food industry were working together to introduce voluntary targets, said Ni Mhurchu. "There is evidence it is improving their food supply and making it healthier."

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Chetwin said the research supported the case for mandatory front-of-packet labelling and standardised serving size information.

The study was to be published today in the Public Health Nutrition journal. It was led by the National Institute for Health Innovation, University of Auckland, in collaboration with the George Institute for Global Health, Australia.

Healthy options

• Seafood: 84 per cent
• Soups, pizzas, ready meals: 80per cent
• Fruit and veg: 71 per cent
• Cereal: 60 per cent
• Bread and bakery: 29 per cent
• Meat: 23 per cent
• Sauces, spreads: 20 per cent
• Snacks: 12 per cent

- Per cent that meets health standards.