Diet – Shopping for nutrition on a budget

Supermarket own brands are delivering nutrition similar to more expensive branded food products from the same stores, according to the study.

Cash-strapped shoppers at the supermarket often don’t have time to evaluate the nutritional value of their purchases. A University of Auckland study might help with that.

Supermarket own brands – like Pams or Countdown’s Own – are delivering nutrition similar to more expensive branded food products from the same stores, according to the study, which crunched five years of data for thousands of packaged food products.

Dr Teresa Gontijo de Castro, Dr Sally Mackay and Dr Helen Eyles, researchers in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, led the research which looked at 4266 own-brand products and 19,318 branded products from 2015 to 2019.

The study has been published in the journal Nutrients under the title ‘Comparison of Healthiness, Labelling, and Price between Private and Branded Label Packaged Foods in New Zealand (2015–2019).’

“There is still a great deal of room to improve the healthiness of packaged foods sold in supermarkets,” Dr Gontijo de Castro said. “However, what we’ve learned is important for shoppers struggling with their budgets.”

The bottom line is that, overall, supermarket own-brand products are cheaper and at least as healthy as similar more expensive food products in the same stores.

“This information is important for consumers who are struggling with their budget, as there is a common myth that supermarket own-brand options are nutritionally inferior to their branded counterparts,” Dr Mackay said.

The findings come just as supermarket duopoly Woolworths and Foodstuffs are attracting criticism for what the government describes as “extraordinary” profits.

“Our findings do not mean that, overall, supermarkets are performing perfectly, but it does show that their house-brand food products may be a good nutritional choice for budget-conscious consumers,” said Dr Gontijo de Castro.

The main findings of the study were:
Supermarket-brand products were, on average, of similar nutritional quality to the branded alternatives

In 2019, the most recent year of data, half of the supermarket own-brand food products were unhealthy and six in ten branded products were unhealthy. (In the study, products that scored less than 3.5 out of 5 under a Health Star Rating system were considered unhealthy).

Supermarket-brand products were, on average, cheaper than their branded counterparts. Canned fish, canned vegetables and breakfast cereals were 35 percent, 42 percent and 47 percent cheaper, respectively.

Supermarket-brand products were much more likely to display the voluntary Health Star Rating nutrition label on the pack. In 2019, nine out of ten supermarket-brand food products displayed the stars, compared with less than two in ten branded products.
“While a healthy diet should be focused on fresh whole foods, when selecting packaged foods there are some healthier, cheaper options provided by retailer own-brands. That said, there is still plenty of room to improve the nutritional quality of both own-brand and branded products” said Dr Eyles.”

She said Health Star Ratings should be mandatory, so consumers could compare products and choose healthier options.