A new study looks at packaged foods and how healthy they are.
The United Kingdom is often on the receiving end of a lot of grief about their food (rightly or wrongly, you decide).
But a new analysis of packaged foods finds that the convenience snacks, ready-made meals, and drinks sold in the four countries of the United Kingdom are the healthiest in the world.
The United States and Australia take silver and bronze, respectively, according to the report, which was published in Obesity Reviews.
Indeed, investigators from Australia’s George Institute for Global Health in Sydney looked at more than 400,000 food and drink products from 12 countries and territories around the world.
Each food was ranked using Australia’s Health Star Rating system. It measures levels of nutrients like calories, salt, sugar, saturated fat, protein, calcium, and fiber. Each food is then assigned a ranking from half a star (least healthy) to five stars (the most healthy).
Collectively, the United Kingdom’s food and drink products received 2.83 stars. The United States scored 2.82, and Australia came in at 2.81 stars.
At the other end, India took the worst spot, with a food and drink rating of 2.27 stars. China, with a score of 2.43 stars, was second to the bottom. Chile finished out the final three positions with a score of 2.44 stars.
Other unique finds include the fact that Canada has the unhealthiest salt levels of all foods and drinks. But Canadians were second best on sugar rankings, falling just short of the United Kingdom.
China actually had the highest score for healthfulness in their drinks with 2.9 stars. But their packaged foods received 2.37 stars, which accounts for their lowered ranking.
India’s packaged foods were the most energy dense, or had the most calories. South Africa, on the other hand, had the least calorie-rich foods.
“Globally we’re all eating more and more processed foods and that’s a concern because our supermarkets shelves are full of products that are high in bad fats, sugar and salt and are potentially making us sick,” Elizabeth Dunford, PhD, lead author and a research fellow in the food policy division of The George Institute for Global Health, said in a statement.
“Our results show that some countries are doing a much better job than others,” she added. “Unfortunately it’s the poorer nations that are least able to address the adverse health consequences that have the unhealthiest foods.”
But these results stand in stark contrast to another reality: In the United Kingdom, Canada, United States, and Australia, the obesity rates are climbing.
In the United States alone, more than two-thirds of adults are overweight or have obesity.
The access to “healthy” packaged foods, it seems, ultimately may have little to do with the health of the average consumer.
“It is not surprising that the wealthiest and most industrialized nations like USA and Canada have packaged food with higher overall nutrient profiles compared to India and China,” Nicole Magryta, RDN, author of “Nourish Your Tribe: Empowering Parents to Grow Strong, Smart, Successful Kids,” told Healthline.
“I don’t think we needed a study to discover this fact. What’s more important to recognize is the quantity of processed packaged foods that have exploded into the market and the rate and volume of which they are consumed.
“Wealthy industrialized nations like the United States have much larger selections of packaged food items that are considered ‘boutique’ or ‘functional foods,’ such as a collagen protein bar with lion’s mane mushrooms and bee pollen or matcha green tea with added spirulina and vitamin D,” she explained. “These foods are definitely better options than a Snickers bar and a soda, which are often what’s available in poorer nations.”
But Nicole Avena, PhD, an assistant professor at Mount Sinai Medical School and author of “Why Diets Fail,” told Healthline she hopes this doesn’t send the message that packaged foods in the United States are actually better options over whole foods.
“The results are interesting, but I fear they mislead some to think that U.S. packaged foods are healthy. While they might be healthier than the packaged foods in other countries, they certainly aren’t healthy compared to a diet of vegetables, fruits, fish, and lean meats,” she said.
This ranking isn’t license to drink and eat these foods as you wish.
Jodi Greebel, MS, RDN, says it’s great that the study highlights that the United States has some of the world’s healthiest packaged foods. But, she adds, even healthier snacks “can lead to overconsumption of calories, fat, and salt.”
“For example, if your diet included one to two packaged snacks a day, you could still consume a diet that adheres to dietary guidelines,” Greebel said.
“The problem in the U.S. is that for many children and adults, packaged snacks make up a large part of their calorie consumption for the day. So, even with a higher rating of packaged snacks, it is still possible to be consuming too many calories, fat, and salt,” she said.
And that’s the rub for most of the experts Healthline talked to. At their best, many of these foods are an unnecessarily high source of nutrients we don’t need in abundance.
“We rely on processed prepackaged foods for convenience, but many of them contain high levels of sugar, salt, preservatives, and other chemicals to enhance their texture, smell, and aroma,” Avena said.
“It may be best to avoid them and opt for fresh foods when you can. Obviously, there are times that you can’t, so try to look for foods, packaged foods with low or no sugar or other sweeteners, few ingredients, and higher protein content to help make you feel fuller longer,” she said.
Emily Tills, MS, RDN, points out that packaged foods, even the kind you find in the refrigerated section and not the boxes in the aisles, are processed in such a way they can sit and wait — and sit and wait a little more — for a consumer to purchase them without losing their flavors and textures.
That equals salt, sugar, and preservatives that, in a healthy diet, should be consumed sparingly.
“If you’re looking to buy healthier options from prepackaged foods, we have to start looking at the ingredients panel more. The ingredients list should read more like a recipe and less like a chemical equation,” Tills said.
“The simpler ingredients, the better. And if you can just make it yourself for the same price or cheaper, do it!”