Supersize that? New Zealand’s worrying fast food trends

09 July 2018
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The serving size, energy and sodium levels of New Zealand fast food have increased significantly over the past five years, according to University of Auckland research.

The study, Fast food trends in New Zealand, led by Dr Helen Eyles, included almost 5,500 fast food products with available nutrition information across 12 food groups and 10 major fast food chains in 2012-2016.

The study sourced publically available information from the companies’ own websites and through visits to the restaurant branches for any material not found online.

Researchers gathered information on serve size, energy density, sodium density, energy per serve, and sodium per serve for each product. Serve size was as defined by the manufacturer, assumed to be the amount intended to be consumed in one sitting.

Across all products, researchers found a 5% increase in serve size, a 6% increase in energy density, a 14% increase in energy per serve, and a 12% increase in sodium per serve. Sodium density did not change significantly.

For some food groups, large negative changes were seen for several of these measures. Serve size, energy per serve and sodium per serve had gone up in Desserts and Pizzas, and sodium density, energy per serve and sodium per serve had gone up in Sandwiches and Salads. However, there was some good news from the study with Asian fast food products displaying large significant decreases in serve size and energy per serve over the five years. Also, when researchers looked for potential improvements in products available for sale over two or more of the five years they found a reduction in sodium density, which indicated some positive change or reformulation over time.

“Overall, NZ fast foods have become larger and more energy dense over the past five years. Reduction of sodium in products available for some time is a welcome improvement, but this has been offset by overall increases in serve size,” Dr Eyles says.

The most worrying trend was in serve size.

The 5 per cent increase over the five-year period, which increased the amount of energy and sodium per serve, may have also increased other nutrients not measured, such as sugar.

Fast food trends in New Zealand is part of the Dietary Interventions: Evidence & Translation (DIET) programme funded by the Health Research Council and led by Prof Cliona Ni Mhurchu at the University’s National Institute for Health Innovation, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

Dr Eyles says an important consideration from the study is the impact on young people, the highest consumers of fast foods. National Nutrition Survey data found 38 per cent of 15 to 18 year olds and 42 per cent of 18 to 30 year olds had consumed fast food in the past month. These figures are also likely to be conservative given the survey was undertaken in 2008/09.

“Our fast food chains should make changes in line with the ‘Healthy Kids Industry’ pledge as part of the Government’s childhood obesity plan, including measurable reductions to the serve size and overall healthiness of products” says Dr Eyles, who hopes the study will encourage the Government to develop and implement guidelines for the fast food industry.

“Implementation of Government-led targets for the serve size, energy and nutrient content of fast food products could improve the composition of New Zealand fast foods and population diets.”