Food delivery services making junk foods more accessible

13 October 2020
The takeaway message about takeaway
A study looking at online food delivery options in Sydney and Auckland has found majority of the most popular menu items categorised as 'unhealthy'.

A review on data from an online food delivery service has found the majority of popular food outlets and menu items advertised are classified as ‘unhealthy’ under independent guidelines.

University of Sydney researchers examined publicly available data on the healthiness of the most popular food outlets and menu items advertised on an online food delivery service (Uber Eats) in two international cities - Sydney, Australia and Auckland, New Zealand. The time period examined was not during government restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The work also highlights a discrepancy - nearly 90 percent of food options and food outlets with the ‘healthy’ tag on Uber Eats, were considered ‘unhealthy’ according to an independent scoring system of healthiness.

The findings published today in Nutrients is understood to be the first published research of its kind.

What sets this study apart is that we used evidence-based and independent rating systems such as the Australian Dietary Guidelines to assess nutritional quality of their popular menu items,” says lead author Dr Stephanie Partridge, from the University of Sydney’s Westmead Applied Research CentreCharles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Medicine and Health.

In both cities almost 75 percent of the most popular food outlets were scored as unhealthy according to the Food Environment Score, an independent public health rating system on the healthiness of popular food outlets.

Over 80 percent of popular menu items advertised were classified as discretionary, meaning they are high in added salt, saturated fat, added sugar or low in dietary fibre according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines. Online food delivery is also making it easier for people to buy food of low nutritional quality.

 “We also found that 90 percent of delivery distances were much greater than 1km, the distance traditionally used to define a neighbourhood food environment,” says co-lead author and dietitian Dr Alice Gibson, from the University of Sydney Menzies Centre for Health Policy and Charles Perkins Centre, Faculty of Medicine and Health.

“This shows online food delivery services are increasing the reach of food outlets and disrupting traditional food environments. Current nutrition policies are based on a ‘built environment’ model – we now need to consider ‘digital food environments'."

‘’On average, food outlets delivered to more suburbs in Auckland than Sydney,’’ says co-investigator Dr Rajshri Roy from the University of Auckland. Dr Roy is also a New Zealand registered dietitian.

“Our food neighbourhoods are getting bigger, and these companies can do good and help make healthy food more accessible.’’

A tale of online food order habits in two cities

The researchers studied publicly available data from the Uber Eats website as it is currently the most popular online food delivery platform for young people in Australia and New Zealand. It was also the only food delivery service that had the ‘Most Popular’ search option when the study was conducted. Previously, that option could be viewed by people with and without an account. Since July, that option can only be viewed now when users log into their account.

A separate study has estimated that 11.5 percent of all people living in Australia use Uber Eats.

The researchers focused on online take-away food ordering in 233 suburbs in Sydney and 186 suburbs in Auckland with a higher than average young population (15-34 years) from national Census data.

The two cities were purposely chosen to compare different populations of high-income countries with similar proportions of young people (over 30 percent).

Key Findings

Out of 1074 food outlets examined in total:

  • Most food outlets were scored as ‘unhealthy’- 73.4 percent in Sydney and 73.6 percent in Auckland.
  •  Half of the food outlets in Auckland and a third of food outlets in Sydney were classified as fast-food franchise stores.
  • Only 5.1 percent of food outlets in Sydney were classified as ‘healthy’, and 4.3 percent in Auckland.
  •  In Sydney, 87 percent of food outlets with the ‘healthy’ tag on the online website  were considered unhealthy under an independent scoring system. In Auckland, the figure was 86 percent.

Out of 5769 popular menu items examined in total:

  • In Sydney, 84.3 percent of most popular menu items and 88.2 percent of menu items in Auckland were classified as unhealthy according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
  •  In Sydney, one in six of the most popular items were soft drinks and in Auckland, almost one in three were meal deals which included hot chips or soft drinks.
  • There was no association found between low-income suburbs and number of unhealthy food options.

Dr Partridge, also an accredited practising dietitian says the current COVID-19 pandemic may have accelerated the demand for online food delivery.

 “Online food services are already growing in popularity around the world, changing the traditional way people access restaurant and take-away foods,” she said.

“Food delivery services are a really convenient service in response to consumer demand, and there is a potential to direct that accessibility to promote healthy eating.”

Declaration: The authors declare no competing interests. 

Ivy Shih

Media and Public Relations Adviser (Medicine and Health)

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