New Food App is “Well-Intentioned But Flawed”

SINGAPORE – A new iPhone app called “Foodswitch”, launched by Australia’s The George Institute for Global Health and health insurer BUPA, promises users an easy way to make better dietary decisions. While welcoming such tools that help consumers make good food choices, the food industry in Australia has questioned the effectiveness of the app because of its reliance on over-simplified, colour-coded food categories that fail to take into account critical dietary information.

Geoffrey Annison, Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Health Nutrition and Scientific Affairs for the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), said “the app is a well-intentioned effort to bring modern technology to bear in shaping better diets, but the lack of scientific basis to many of its recommendations may keep it from being fully effective.”

“It’s a great idea, but the recommendations are not based on the most up-to-date scientific research,” Dr Annison said. “For an app like this to be effective, it needs to draw on proven approaches that are shown to help people reshape their diets.”

Foodswitch works like this: You scan a barcode of a food item and the app brings up a series of traffic lights designed to tell you whether or not the food is a “healthy ” or an “unhealthy” dietary choice. It then suggests an alternative “healthier” option. Dietary information and the alternative suggestions are based on a database of 20,000 records gathered and maintained by The George Institute.

“The problem is that the traffic light system is flawed,” Annison said. “It has the potential to mislead when consumers are asked to choose between different colour combinations.For example, is three ambers and a green – such as milk – better or worse than three greens and a red, such as a cola drink? The best research has demonstrated AFGC Daily Intake Guide labelling is readily understood by consumers. You can find this on the nutrition information panel or pulled out separately on the front of many packs in Australia. In contrast to traffic lights, percentage daily intakes refer to how much an average adult should eat in one day and are a much more accurate way to educate consumers.”

Good eating decisions, Annison said, are complex and are based on factors including the daily intake needs of an individual, lifestyle, overall diet, and more. Traffic lights, he said, simply attempt to judge foods on their standalone merits, without placing them in the context in which they are actually consumed: an individual’s daily diet “This has given rise to the myth that foods themselves are somehow inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, which has no basis in science,” Annison explained. “Any food can be responsibly consumed as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle, which is why industry endorses percentage daily intake labels and is a leader in helping people live more active lives.”

“Furthermore,” Annison said, “the Foodswitch app only provides information on a limited range of nutritional factors, including fat, saturated fat, sugars, salt and energy. It doesn’t take into account crucial micro-nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. The information it does provide is also based on a 100g/ml basis, which is likely to confuse consumers, who plan their diets based on actual serving sizes, not 100g/ml increments of food,” he said.

Another point of vulnerability is The George Institute’s crowd-sourced database, which may inaccurately report the nutritional qualities of some foods. FoodSwitch calculates healthier choices by comparing the overall nutritional value of foods based on Food Standards Australia New Zealand nutrient profiling criteria for health claims. But the scientific basis for this system has also been challenged.

“Greater inclusiveness is needed in developing tools like the Foodswitch App,” Annison said. “We hope that going forward, responsible food companies are seen as valuable partners in developing such tools as they continue to provide consumers with the benefit of science-based dietary information on packs to help them lead healthy, balanced lifestyles.”