World's worst? ParknShop in Hong Kong Central tops list of unhealthy food and alcohol promotions
Study finds unhealthy food and alcohol accounts for more than half of local supermarket chain's online promotions
In an analysis of weekly circulars from major supermarket chains in 12 countries, those from ParknShop were found to promote the highest proportion of unhealthy foods (61.7 per cent) and also had the lowest ratio of healthy to unhealthy foods (0.5 per cent).
The study, by Australian obesity prevention researchers at Deakin University's WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention in Melbourne, was conducted over eight weeks, from July to September. It was published in September in leading international journal, Preventive Medicine.
Countries were selected based on the online availability of weekly circulars and the absence of significant language or interpretation barriers.
The worst offender was a ParknShop in Central - the study found it promoted the greatest proportion of unhealthy food and alcohol (69 per cent), followed by Asda in the UK (61 per cent) and Kroger in the US (57 per cent). Coles and Woolworths in Australia (54 per cent) and Giant Hypermarket in Malaysia (51 per cent) rounded out the supermarkets for which unhealthy food and alcohol accounted for more than half of their promotions.
Circulars from Loblaws (Canada), New World (New Zealand), FairPrice (Singapore) and Shoprite (South Africa) also contained a high proportion of unhealthy food (40 per cent to 50 per cent). The exceptions were the Philippines (no unhealthy foods) and India (11 per cent unhealthy food).
"A clear opportunity exists for supermarkets to use their circulars to promote healthy eating," says Adrian Cameron, a senior research fellow with the centre.
"This international comparison shows that some major supermarkets are able to promote more healthy foods than unhealthy foods. The high levels of promotion of junk food by other supermarkets therefore need not be the norm."
Products were grouped into healthy (from the five core food groups) and unhealthy (discretionary) foods according to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, a government supported food selection guide. Healthy foods that should be consumed daily included fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat, grains and water, while unhealthy foods included soft drinks, confectionary, chocolate, chips, desserts and ice creams, unhealthy ready meals, fats and oils, processed meats such as sausages, rissoles, hamburgers, bacon, processed delicatessen meats (salami, ham), dried meats as well as jams and energy drinks.
Alcohol was also assessed, with a separate category for assorted other foods such as tea, coffee, natural sweeteners, salad dressing, sauces, salt, breakfast spreads, infant food products, herbs and spices.
A ParknShop spokesman says the study does not reflect the full picture.
"ParknShop promotes its products via diverse channels, including TV, newspapers, magazines and also in our stores and eStore, covering a wide variety of products including fresh meat, vegetables, fruits and health foods."
Supermarkets are a major source of food in most high-income countries and increasingly in middle- and low-income countries.
The findings support previous work by the same researchers that found supermarkets worldwide heavily promote unhealthy foods at key sites in-store, such as end-of-aisle and checkout displays.
"We believe the promotion of unhealthy foods by supermarkets could be a major barrier to halting the global obesity epidemic," Cameron says.
"It is becoming a particular concern in low and middle-income countries where supermarkets are rapidly displacing traditional food sources. Efforts to restrict unhealthy food marketing should also focus on supermarkets."
The report says the high percentage of discretionary foods is inconsistent with recommendations for a healthy diet and promotes the unhealthy eating behaviours that contribute to the global obesity epidemic.
It says health promotion activities should include discussions with local retailers to identify strategies to increase the proportion of fruits and vegetables advertised and to reduce the amount of discretionary food marketing. At the national level, governments should investigate mechanisms to improve the "healthiness" of supermarket marketing as part of a broader strategy to restrict marketing of unhealthy foods.
Unhealthy diets and excess body weight are key risk factors for the development of major nutrition-related chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, several cancers, dental disease and osteoporosis, according to the World Health Organisation.
In 2014, a Hong Kong government report revealed that 39 per cent of the population aged from 18 to 64 were classified as overweight or obese, including 20.8 per cent who were obese.
Hong Kong-based dietitian Denise Fair was not surprised by the study's findings.
"Obesity is a global problem and while governments want to help fight it there's little legislature to back them up," says Fair, of the Central Health Medical Practice.
Fair says companies, including grocery stores, restaurants and food manufacturers, should be held accountable.
"There needs to be more laws protecting people's overall health and well-being. Health care groups like the HKDA [Hong Kong Dietitians Association] spend a lot of time and effort educating people on healthy eating, but companies sabotage these efforts with inaccurate advertising and confusing consumers with claims that their foods are 'all natural', or have 'no added sugar'. These gimmicks make consumers think their food is healthy when in fact it's not. It is a frustrating a issue that dietitians combat every day.
"Proper nutrition is fundamental and nutritious food should be advertised almost exclusively in circulars. Governments need to step in and make stricter advertising laws to protect society from companies whose sole aim is to make more money at the cost of our health."