Health Research Council logo

Do Health Star Rating labels on packaged foods really affect our food choices, and can supermarket practices change our buying behaviour? The Health Research Council of New Zealand is investing nearly $5 million into a research programme that will assess what does or doesn’t help New Zealanders in following a healthier diet.

The research led by Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu from the University of Auckland and a team of leading nutrition researchers from New Zealand and Australia, will look at strategies to support healthier diets across four different domains; at an individual level, government level, food industry level and public health level.

At an industry level, researchers will work with Progressive Enterprises NZ to co-design and test interventions that not only promote healthier food purchases but are also commercially sustainable. They will identify up to three different approaches and test their influence on buying behaviour in six Countdown supermarkets, with full access to store sales data to evaluate the impact.

Researchers will also measure the impact of front-of-pack Health Star Rating labels, looking at their impact on consumer behaviour as well as on the industry’s reformulation of products.

The voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labelling system that rates the content of packaged food in half-star increments has been used in New Zealand and Australia since 2014.

“Findings will be of significant interest and value to national and international policy-makers and governments, particularly in identifying if the current non-regulatory (voluntary) approach to nutrition labelling is effective,” says Professor Ni Mhurchu.

“We know there’s an increasing preference by government for non-regulatory approaches to improve diet, but there isn’t a lot of evidence that voluntary strategies are effective. With this research, we’ll be able to inform the debate very effectively.”

Professor Ni Mhurchu says the four areas covered by the research programme will address major gaps in evidence identified by her team. She adds that years of work leading up to this has prepared her team for the task.

The research will draw heavily on the unique database that the research team has been compiling since 2013, thanks to previous support from the Health Research Council (HRC) for their Dietary Interventions: Evidence & Translation (DIET) programme. The new grant will build on this programme of work over the next five years.

“We’ve been collecting information on the composition, labelling and ingredients of packaged foods in New Zealand for the past five years, and linking that with Nielsen’s household food purchasing data,” says Professor Ni Mhurchu.

The data produced has already been used to power smartphone apps like FoodSwitch, which support people in making healthier food choices, and it allows researchers to advocate for a healthier food supply by evaluating and rating the nutritional quality of foods and companies.

“We’re constantly looking at ways to translate our research into policy, and with this next phase of research that is the explicit emphasis,” she says.

“We’ve weaved in a lot more co-design (working closely with non-research end-users) than has been traditionally the case for this kind of research. We’re working with supermarkets and with government to understand their priorities, because only by working across all these domains will we be able to make a meaningful change for New Zealanders. And that’s what we want – we want the research to make a difference to the lives of New Zealanders.”

HRC chief executive Professor Kath McPherson says the HRC is pleased to support the continued effort to address dietary health in New Zealand.

“Cliona Ni Mhurchu has successfully won HRC funding for her dietary research since 2007 and has built a really strong team, with New Zealand now recognised for its work in this field internationally,” she says.

“This latest world-class programme of research has multiple components but all are built on the understanding that multiple factors impact on diet, including linkages between people and their environments. The integrative approach to tackling the problem is a wise way forward.”

The HRC has just announced funding for five research programmes to the tune of $24.61 million. These highly sought-after grants go towards programmes with a strategic long-term vision that will contribute to improving health outcomes for New Zealanders.

See below for the full list of 2018 HRC programme grant recipients, and to read lay summaries of the research projects, click here.

2018 HRC programme grants – full list

Associate Professor Rebecca Campbell, University of Otago, Dunedin

Untangling PCOS: Understanding androgen excess and the female brain

60 months, $4,999,604

Professor Jackie Cumming, Victoria University of Wellington

Enhancing primary health care services to improve health in Aotearoa/New Zealand

60 months, $4,779,445

Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu, The University of Auckland

Dietary Interventions: Evidence & Translation (DIET) programme

60 months, $4,879,689

Associate Professor Gregory O'Grady, The University of Auckland

Translational advances in gastrointestinal surgical recovery and motility disorders

60 months, $4,953,846

Professor Peter Shepherd, The University of Auckland

Understanding genetic risk factors for metabolic disease in Maori and Pacific

60 months, $4,997,081