Thursday, 31 October 2013

Can a food app make you healthier?

Boyd Swinburn, Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland explains how a popular new app is identifying the healthiness of our food, by partnering consumers with scientists.

If unhealthy food environments are driving up the obesity epidemic, then how are governments and the food industry responding and are the food environments they are creating for us getting healthier? 

For example: Are processed foods reducing in salt, sugar or fat? Are our children exposed to less unhealthy food marketing on TV, the internet, and through sponsorship? Is healthier food getting cheaper? Are food labels getting easier to interpret? Is the proportion of schools meeting healthy food guidelines increasing?

I think these are all good questions – in fact critical for our nutritional health - but who is answering them?  All countries signed up to World Health Organisation’s plan for monitoring changes in non-communicable diseases and its risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity.

But this monitoring framework will not answer any of the food policy and environment questions I posed above. A group of academics at a dozen or so universities around the world and several global non-government organisations, including Consumers International, thought that this was not good enough. So we decided to create our own monitoring system to complement WHO’s efforts. 

We set up a group called INFORMAS which stands for International Network for Food and Obesity/NCD Research, Monitoring and Action Support (

It seems all organisations and projects need acronyms these days and interestingly, ‘informas’ turns out to be Esperanto for the present tense of the verb to inform, so I think it is quite appropriate (and easily searchable which is important in the electronic age).

INFORMAS has got straight to work and recently  published a set of papers on how we should be monitoring and benchmarking food environments. The next question, once we are through pilot testing the measurements in several countries, is how do we see consumers being involved?

This to me is one of the really exciting parts of this whole INFORMAS endeavour. Working with Bupa Australia, our INFORMAS colleagues at the George Institute for Global Health are already using crowdsourcing of data in some countries where a free smartphone app called Foodswitch has been launched.

Consumers can use it to scan the barcodes of foods and get nutrient information in the form of traffic lights to reflect low, medium or high amounts of salt, saturated fat, and sugar and it even suggests alternative healthier choices if appropriate.

This app has been very popular wherever it has been launched and in fact consumers have also been able to help keep the database up to date because if the barcode is not recognised the consumer is asked to take photos of the package and send them in so that the food can be added to the database – truly a collaborative effort of scientists and consumers.

But we have even more in mind as INFORMAS progresses. We eventually want to have the same sort of crowdsourcing for instances of marketing to children and we plan to include the public in our systems for rating how well governments and companies are doing in terms of giving us the type of food environments that make healthy food choices the easy or even default choices.

One thing that has seriously been lacking in the whole debate on preventing obesity and other diet-related health problems is the strong voice of the consumer.

We need this to create the demand for governments and companies to act more in the public interest on food matters. We hope that INFORMAS will provide the platform for that voice.


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  2. I have tested the Foodswitch app and seen other, similar apps from Canada. And discussed the possibility for an app to do the following:
    - take a picture of the nutritional label of a food package
    - use optical character recognition to "translate" the text/quantities on sugars, salt, fats (perhaps also calories)
    - check whether the information is given per 100 gr or per serving (size should be indicated)
    - calculate the levels of sugars, salt and fats using FSA's traffic light standard
    - show the results as a warning traffic light to the consumer.

    This way, we would not need obligatory traffic light (or similar) labelling of products, only conscious consumers with smartphones who will be independent of the reluctant industry trying to avoid showing what is in their products.
    A sponsored hackathon would get us this kind of app "in a jiffy"; translating into English, French, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. would be useful. Idea for a CI project?

  3. It is every parent’s nightmare: going to the grocery store with your kids and listening to them whine about how they want this sugary cereal and that sweet yogurt. And by the time you reach the check out Food Marketing Services counter to pay for the cookies and soda your kids bullied you into putting into the cart, you feel again like an irresponsible parent who caved in to the demands of a five year old.