A five-year research project looking at practical strategies for healthier eating is being led by Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu from the University of Auckland. She and her team of leading New Zealand and Australian nutrition researchers are looking at how to support healthier diets at the individual level as well as at the government, food industry and public health levels.

Ni Mhurchu’s project is being funded by the Health Research Council (HRC), which today announced five-year funding grants for five research programmes worth a total of $24.61 million.

The research team is to work with Progressive Enterprises NZ to design and test interventions that promote healthier food purchases and are also commercially sustainable for the supermarket chain. Up to three interventions will be tested for their impacts on shopping behaviour in six Countdown supermarkets, with researchers being given full access to store sales data to evaluate the impacts.

Researchers will also at the impact of  the voluntary, front-of-pack Health Star Rating labels, in use since 2014, to see how the nutrition-labelling system influences shopping behaviour as well as the food industry’s reformulation of products.

Ni Mhurchu said the findings would be of significant interest and value to national and international policy-makers and governments, particularly whether voluntary approaches to nutrition labelling are effective.

“We know there’s an increasing preference by government for non-regulatory approaches to improve diet, but there isn’t a lot of evidence that voluntary strategies are effective. With this research, we’ll be able to inform the debate very effectively.”

She also said the latest research project aims to address major evidence gaps identified by her team and will draw on the team’s years of research work in the area. This includes drawing on the database that the research team has been compiling since 2013, supported by a previous HRC grant.

“We’ve been collecting information on the composition, labelling and ingredients of packaged foods in New Zealand for the past five years, and linking that with Nielsen’s household food purchasing data,” said Ni Mhurchu.

The data to date has been used to power smartphone apps like FoodSwitch, which support people in making healthier food choices, and also allows researchers to advocate for a healthier food supply by evaluating and rating the nutritional quality of foods and companies.

“We’re constantly looking at ways to translate our research into policy, and with this next phase of research that is the explicit emphasis,” she says.

“We’ve weaved in a lot more co-design [working closely with non-research end-users] than has been traditionally the case for this kind of research. We’re working with supermarkets and with government to understand their priorities, because only by working across all these domains will we be able to make a meaningful change for New Zealanders. And that’s what we want – we want the research to make a difference to the lives of New Zealanders.”

2018 HRC programme grants – full list

Associate Professor Rebecca Campbell,the University of Otago, Dunedin

Untangling PCOS: Understanding androgen excess and the female brain

60 months, $4,999,604

Professor Jackie Cumming, Victoria University of Wellington

Enhancing primary health care services to improve health in Aotearoa/New Zealand

60 months, $4,779,445

Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu, the University of Auckland

Dietary Interventions: Evidence & Translation (DIET) programme

60 months, $4,879,689

Associate Professor Gregory O’Grady, the University of Auckland

Translational advances in gastrointestinal surgical recovery and motility disorders

60 months, $4,953,846

Professor Peter Shepherd, the University of Auckland

Understanding genetic risk factors for metabolic disease in Maori and Pacific

60 months, $4,997,081

To read summaries of the research projects go to www.hrc.govt.nz/funding-opportunities/recipients and filter for ‘Researcher Initiated Proposals’, ‘Programmes’ and ‘2018’.

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