~ This is a sponsored post (although it’s completely my own words and my own opinions) ~
I was recently approached by the PR team at Bupa (the people in charge of the fabulous Health Influencer Blog Awards I was a finalist in last year) to review the newest edition of their Australian-friendly app, FoodSwitch, which was released last Tuesday. The app aims to help the everyday Australian consumer to make healthier food choices by scanning the barcode of their favourite product and giving healthier options of products within the same category.
So with the $100 Woolies voucher I was provided by Bupa Australia and The George Institute for Global Health and my phone in my hand, I set off to my local supermarket to test out the FoodSwitch app.
As a nutritionist, I found it quite difficult to scan the foods that I would usually eat, because fruits and vegetables don’t always have barcodes, so while I did my usual shopping, I flitted around the aisles with my volunteer photographer Alex, scanning the things that I thought were commonly purchased products for an everyday supermarket customer.
The app itself has a few different filters; the regular FoodSwitch, SaltSwitch, GlutenSwitch, FatSwitch, EnergySwitch and SugarSwitch. Admittedly, I only used the FoodSwitch filter, because I couldn’t find (what I easily just found now – duh!) the filter button, but after a quick scan of my shared pantry, I’ve managed to get the gist of them.
I figured out quickly, that out of the two options available for rating the products, I definitely preferred the Traffic Light rating compared to the Health Star Rating. The fat, saturated fat, sugar, salt and energy categories are based on the recommended daily intake (RDI) guidelines. The colour-coding of red, amber and green are a very clear and visual way to see how the product fits into each of these categories, with green indicating a healthier choice, amber indicating an ‘ok’ choice and red indicating a less healthy choice. Whereas, the Health Star Rating gives a star rating of the overall health of the product according to these guidelines, which, in my opinion is quite a broad way to rate a product. The GlutenSwitch option is available with the regular ratings with a red or green indicator of whether or not a product is gluten free (Woolies brand original corn chips, surprisingly NOT gluten-free – poor form Woolies!).
I scanned a variety of products; peanut butter, nutella, crackers, tinned spaghetti, mayonnaise, white bread, instant noodles, tomato sauce, kidney beans, yoghurt, muesli bars, chips and chocolate. The results ranged from some products being provided with alternatives, some provided with alternatives not available in the supermarket I was in, some products deemed the healthiest in their category, and some (including Cadbury Dairy Milk) not existing in the database – which I found quite surprising as the products I scanned were “household names” as far as I knew.
The app itself is easy to use and kinda fun to go around scanning things and looking for the suggested alternatives on the shelf. It can be a great introduction to reading labels and could probably even be used to encourage kids to make healthier choices. My favourite result of using the app, for example, was scanning a tin of red kidney beans, a healthy vegetarian source of protein and rich in fibre that I personally use in my own diet a lot. While most of the “traffic lights” lit up as green for the particular brand I chose, the salt category was amber, but there were many alternatives available on the shelf in front of me that were green across the board, including organic varieties – which was really great to see.
However, considering only the fat, saturated fat, sugar, salt and energy content is a very small-minded view of nutrition, and completely negates the value of eating whole, real foods. The problem with the food with barcodes is that the majority of them are processed foods, so even if they do have all their “traffic lights” green, they may still be devoid of any real nutritional value and full of nasty additives. Nutrition is so much more than calories and salt intake, and fat intake is good for you!! Our bodies need fats – good fats – be them omega-3 fatty acids, monounsaturated fats, like avocado, extra virgin olive oil and those in nuts, or saturated fats like butter, coconut oil and other animal fats. Just as any nutrient or food, not to excess. Vilifying their intake in this way, in my opinion, is rather old-fashioned and doesn’t take into account the benefits of these fats individually and their difference in benefits to oils that are heat-sensitive (such as seed oils like canola or sunflower) or trans fats (chemically changed oil that is damaging to cells).
This is how I would improve the app if it were up to me:
- Remind app users somehow in the app that whole food options will be healthier than anything that can be scanned
- Perhaps actually suggest whole food recipes as an alternative in the comparison. For example, if someone scanned a packet of crackers, suggest the quick alternative of veggie sticks instead, fresh or frozen fruit or vegetables as an alternative to tinned ones, roast potato recipe instead of those packaged frozen chips, or even the addition of some fresh vegetables to a frozen pizza (rocket, tomato, capsicum, spinach, mushroom, etc).
- Add a traffic light for overall nutrient value, or even antioxidant value and explain the benefits of antioxidants in a person’s diet
- Add a traffic light for the additives added to the food. I feel like this can give a good and simplistic idea of how far removed the product is from a whole food, and the level of adverse effects that can occur with consumption of certain additives
- Consider stevia as an alternative to table sugar, and consider the stevia-sweetened chocolates available in the health food aisle when comparing chocolate products
- Don’t suggest that margarine – aka a tub of trans fat – is a healthy alternative to butter (this one particularly irked me). It’s not.
Would I recommend the FoodSwitch app?
Well, I’m a big believer in the concept of knowledge is power, and while I don’t completely agree with the way foods are being judged as “healthy” or “unhealthy” on this app, I do think it is a good way to understand what the Australian guidelines around these particular food groups/nutrients and an easier way to read food labels. Personally, I’d rather take a product with a green light for sugar over a product with a green light for saturated fat, and even more so, I’d prefer that whole foods made up the majority of a person’s diet. But I do understand that for some people, making a simple switch from, say, a toasted muesli to a raw muesli can be a big step for them nutritionally.
I think the thing to keep in mind is that this app only covers a small aspect of nutrition, and that food biochemistry and nutrition are so much more complex than the few food groups represented here. This app could be a baby step for someone who is unsure of where to begin when it comes to healthy eating, but I do feel there is a lot of room for improvement.