India and China may be heading towards a “tsunami” of obesity and diet-related health conditions in the near future if steps are not taken to improve the healthiness of packaged food and drinks sold throughout the two increasingly large industrialised nations.
This warning comes from Professor Bruce Neal – acting executive director of The George Institute and chair of the Australian Division of World Action on Salt and Health – following the release of a new global survey that gave India and China the lowest ratings for the healthiness of packaged food and drinks.
The survey, conducted by The George Institute for Global Health and co-authored by Prof Neal, analysed more than 400,000 food and drink products from 12 countries and territories around the world. Researchers examined packaged items across 14 different sections, including beverages, bakery products, meat and meat alternatives, convenience foods, eggs, sauces and dressings, seafood and seafood products, and snack foods.
Countries were ranked using Australia’s Health Star Rating system, which measures nutrients like energy, salt, sugar and saturated fat and assigns a star rating from 0.5 (least healthy) to five (most healthy).
“What we will see is a tsunami of obesity and diet-related ill health unless they do something really rapidly to fix this issue.”
The survey results, published in Obesity Reviews, showed that India ranked the lowest with a rating of 2.27, followed by China at 2.43.
Prof Neal says the study’s findings are cause for concern, given the size of India and China’s populations and the poor health status of packaged foods and drinks readily available for sale throughout these booming nations.
“What we will see is a tsunami of obesity and diet-related ill-health unless they do something really rapidly to fix this issue,” says Neal, who’s also a Professor of Medicine at UNSW.
“It will be really difficult for them, not only because they have an even unhealthier food supply than we have at the moment, but because they also don’t have the resources that we have to deal with the consequence of an unhealthy food supply when it later translates into chronic disease.”
A Harvard University 2019 study shows that one-in-five children in China are now overweight or obese, compared to one-in-20 in 1995. The study explains this is because of China’s rapid economic growth over the past 20 years.
“India and China have been eating much less packaged and processed foods until the last decade or two. But now, they are starting to show the signs [of obesity and poor health].”
How packaged foods and drinks sold in Australia were rated
In the newly released survey, Australia was rated as the third-best nation for the healthiness of packaged food and drinks scoring an average Health Star Rating of 2.81. The UK had the highest rating of 2.83 and the USA came in at close second with a rating of 2.82.
While on the surface, the survey appears to highlight how healthy Australian food and beverages are, Prof Neal says our ranking has to be put in context.
The rating does not show how much packaged goods Australians are actually consumed per capita, nor does it highlight our current obesity epidemic.
“Coming in third is better than coming in twelfth but we obviously have a huge problem with what we eat and drink in Australia.”
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 31 per cent of our population is obese. Australia has also been ranked as having the eighth highest proportion of people aged over 15 that are obese out of 23 countries in the OECD.
“Coming in third is better than coming in twelfth, but we obviously have a huge problem with what we eat and drink in Australia,” says Prof Neal.
“We probably had a worse average rating of [packaged foods and drinks] 10 or 20 years ago. It’s gotten a bit better because of steps taken [to counteract] the obesity epidemic, as it has become more apparent and problematic. But frankly, we still have a huge problem with the average healthiness of processed foods in Australia.”
New Indian and Chinese migrants: How does this survey apply to them?
What do the survey results mean for the health of new arrivals from India and China now living in Australia? Prof Neal predicts they will have a greater opportunity to buy a wider range of healthy foods in Australia, compared to what they were exposed to in their countries of origin.
“However, we know that many immigrants, unfortunately, end up in disadvantaged communities in Australia and tend to buy less healthy foods.
“We will need the average rating of health stars for these packaged food and drink products in Australia to be much higher than they actually are now, if we are going to see declines in obesity and other diet-related problems across the country.”