Tāmaki Innovation Campus


Cliona Ni Mhurchu Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu

Fleshing out just what influences buying behaviour when it comes to food, will keep Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu and a team of leading nutrition researchers across New Zealand and Australia very busy over the next five years.

A recently-awarded $4.9m programme grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand, will take the knowledge base  a huge step further, in assessing what works and what doesn’t in different settings, all aimed at supporting New Zealanders to adopt healthier diets.

It builds on her previous HRC programme, Dietary Interventions: Evidence & Translation (DIET) which looked at a range of food environment interventions and influences, including effective nutrition labelling and New Zealand children’s exposure to junk food marketing.

That programme pioneered novel use of technology in dietary research, including automated wearable cameras, a virtual supermarket, and smartphone apps. The new programme will extend previous work, and focuses on scalable real-world interventions and translating findings into policy and action.

“Over the past five years we have been collecting extensive information on the composition, labelling and ingredients of packaged foods in New Zealand, and linking that with Nielsen’s household food purchasing data,” says Professor Ni Mhurchu. This provides a unique platform for this new research programme where these data will be used to design dietary interventions and measure their effects of the food supply.”

Professor Ni Mhurchu, and the team of leading nutrition researchers, will now turn their attention to strategies to support healthier diets across four different areas; at an individual level, government level, food industry level, and public health level.

At an industry level, researchers will work with Progressive Enterprises NZ to co-design and test interventions that not only promote healthier food purchases but are also commercially sustainable. They will identify up to three different approaches and test their influence on buying behaviour in six Countdown supermarkets, accessing store sales data to evaluate the impact.

They’ll also measure the impact of front-of-pack Health Star Rating labels, analysing their impact on consumer behaviour as well as on the industry’s reformulation of products.

“We’re looking at several years of data, before and after introduction of the Health Star Rating labels in 2014, to see if Health Stars have changed food purchasing choices of New Zealanders, and equally if there have been any unintended consequences.  For example, Health Stars are only on packaged foods, so are they unintentionally promoting more processed foods?”

 “Our new work will be of significant interest and value to national and international policy-makers and governments. 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 these voluntary strategies are effective. With this research, we’ll be able to inform the debate very effectively.

“We’re constantly looking at ways to translate our research into policy, and that’s a key focus for this next programme,” she says.

She says the research could make a significant difference to New Zealanders’ lives and their health.  “If we find ways of promoting healthier supermarket food purchases, they could be rolled out very quickly through the Countdown supermarkets, reaching around 2.5m New Zealand customers every week.

“It would have an immediate and dramatic impact on diets and health. But for it to be commercially sustainable, it needs to be good for business too. Retailers have a role to play in promoting healthier food purchases, and we’ll be piloting strategies co-designed by industry and public health academics in stores in Auckland initially.”

Professor Ni Mhurchu says this latest programme of research has a number of components but all are built on the understanding that multiple factors impact on diet, including interactions between people and their environments.

“Unhealthy diet is the leading risk factor for poor health in New Zealand. This programme aims to identify effective, scalable and affordable ways to support all New Zealanders to eat more healthily.”