New smartphone app aids selection of healthier prepackaged foods
FoodSwitch HK, a smartphone application (app) that rates and compares the nutritional value of prepackaged foods in Hong Kong, empowers consumers to make healthier choices and enables the government and industry to work towards healthier food environments.
“With the Nutrition Labelling Scheme in place, most prepackaged foods sold in Hong Kong now have nutrition labels. However, members of the public still have difficulties in comparing the nutritional values of different prepackaged foods,” said Dr Jimmy Louie of the School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong. “Dietitians also often have difficulties suggesting healthier food alternatives to their clients.”
Using the FoodSwitch HK app, consumers can find out the nutrient scores of approximately 13,000 prepackaged foods sold in three major supermarkets in Hong Kong by scanning the barcode on the package. The app also suggests healthier alternatives for consumers. The nutrient score can be displayed in Traffic Lights mode and Health Star Rating mode adapted from the UK Food Standards Agency’s Food Hygiene Rating Scheme and the Australian Health Star Rating System, respectively.
“The FoodSwitch HK database covers approximately 70 percent of the prepackaged foods sold in the local market. They are divided into 20 main categories and around 650 subcategories,” said Louie. “The database is enriched by our data collectors as well as consumers. We have received photos of more than 7,000 items from consumers through crowdsourcing.”
“Apart from helping consumers in selecting healthier foods, the FoodSwitch HK database can also be used for research and advocacy purposes,” he continued. “For example, researchers can identify the percentage of prepackaged foods sold in Hong Kong that meet the low-salt [<120 mg/100 g] labelling requirement, and identify food categories for advocacy and reformulation.”
“FoodSwitch HK has reached more than 35,000 downloads since its launch in April 2018,” noted Louie. “The app is also available in Australia, New Zealand, China, UK, South Africa, India and the US. Researchers at the George Institute for Global Health, Sydney, Australia who developed FoodSwitch hope to extend the app to 50 countries in 5 years.”
“Our team will set up an education website for FoodSwitch HK. We also plan to add the SaltSwitch function in the app, which provides consumers with suggestions on lower-salt alternatives,” he added. “For most people, more than 75 percent of daily salt intake comes from prepackaged foods. With 80 percent of the population in Hong Kong having a salt intake above the WHO-recommended limit of 5 g/day, there is an urgent need to reduce salt intake in our locality.”