By Suzana Almoosawi, Newcastle University
Working out what are the healthiest options in the supermarket can be a difficult job, especially when food labels are often designed to trick you into thinking they're healthier than they are. We asked one academic to road-test a new app that claims to help you clear up some of that confusion.
Monday morning and here I am reaching my hand to a bowl full of my favourite granola. But wait, I have just downloaded this new app on my phone that helps me make healthier food choices by comparing the food labels of the foods I choose, versus alternatives with lower fat, saturated fat and salt content.
FoodSwitch is a free app that gives you advice to help you make healthier choices at your fingertips. The steps look easy: pick the product in the supermarket, scan the barcode, and receive a list of similar products that are lower in fat, saturated fat, and/or salt, et voila. It is then up to if you would like to share your options with relatives or friends who might be shopping for you or to create your own list of healthy alternatives so next time you are planning a shopping trip you know where to find these new healthier foods.
The app was developed by academics and health campaigners and claims to be able to compare more than 80,000 food products from UK supermarkets using the traffic light system. And instead of you standing around flicking between one item in one hand and another in the other, they say, the app can do it for you.
Sounds all good but does it really work? To find out, I decided to test the app - starting with my cereal. I pick up my smartphone from the table and try to focus the camera on the barcode and snap, within a few microseconds I have a list of healthier options.
Tut tut, I should have realised it but my cereal has 25.4g of fat, of which 2.8g is saturated fat, probably from the pecan nuts and added oils. Naughty, but apparently I could still enjoy a bowl of granola every morning if I would go for the Tesco Finest Multi-grain Raspberry and Blueberries alternative; much lower in fat and only 3g higher in sugars.
After that I get carried away. I decide to test the app on a few more cereals in the cupboard: Quaker Oat So Simple Apple & Blueberry, Weetabix Crunchy Bran - and others. Brilliant results, as I find myself with many alternatives that are almost half in saturated and contain three times less sugar.
It's now lunchtime at work. I decide to test if my Innocent Strawberry and Banana Smoothie is so innocent after all. We all know that smoothies contain whole fruits and so unlike fruit juice they tend to retain a larger proportion of the goodness in fruit (though they can still be high in sugar). Using the app, I find there are more than six other more saintly versions of smoothies that I haven't thought of. Some are from the same brand and others are from other leading manufacturers. All of my new options had lower amounts of sugars and some were cheaper too. Not bad, seems like the app could help you remain trim while making sure your wallet remains less skinny.
Next up my pot of Covent Garden vegetable soup with red split lentils, but this time I've have made a good food choice - most of the alternatives come with a similar nutrient content, and occasionally with lower saturated fat content. Good to know the nutritionist in me has managed to pick up a good food choice.
There's a danger the app could annoy those near you. My colleague is sitting next to me and is just about to have her little pot of Muller light Vanilla yoghurt at only 99kcal per pot, but is it so light? I ask if she would mind me borrowing the pot and scanning the barcode to see if she could be getting something else for her lunch treat and not surprisingly there were a few options that could be in fact lighter.
Mind the gap
There were some gaps in the app's knowledge: it didn't contain nutrient information for most soups and in Marks and Spencer's and Fuller Longer range of ready meals. Most, if not all, of the ready meals in Waitrose were not on the database. A lot of the organic brands (Duchy, Rachel's) were also missing.
The developers have an answer to this: crowdsourcing. By taking three photos of a missing item and uploading it to the app they say it will be added to the system and become available to all users.
Occasionally, the app misses the point and just like a wise dietitian, it can find it challenging to choose between which is better: lower fat or lower salt, for example. This happened especially with products like yoghurts and some ready meals, and when it got slightly tricky in terms of choosing what was right for me.
Using FoodSwitch in conjunction with another app that allowed me to estimate my daily nutrient intake would also have made it easier to make an overall informed choice about my daily diet.
There are a number of these the market including MyFitnessPal, which has one of the largest food databases in a diet tracker, and CRON-O-Meter, which is free and simple to use. Using one of these along with FoodSwitch would give you the full picture.
Suzana Almoosawi does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.