The FoodSwitch app asks users to crowdsource information on new and changing foods within the U.S. food supply to update the app’s 268,000-product database in real-time.

A health app developed by Northwestern University in Chicago is using crowdsourcing to help consumers avoid unhealthy food purchases while shopping. The app—FoodSwitch—is like having a nutritionist accompany shoppers while in the grocery store, says Mark Huffman, associate professor of preventive medicine and medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a cardiologist.

Unlike other nutrition apps, FoodSwitch asks users to crowdsource information on new and changing foods within the U.S. food supply to update the app’s 268,000-product database in real time. Given that 20% of the packaged foods in the U.S. turns over every year, having a constantly updated database helps track what is in the global food supply and how healthy it is, Huffman says. “FoodSwitch is unique in that users don’t have to hunt for healthier alternatives,” he says. “They’re all listed in the app.”

By expanding the app’s reach to the U.S., which has the largest food supply in the world (about 400,000 foods compared to 150,000 foods in Australia).

With a tap of the screen, users can scan a packaged food’s barcode, quickly see its nutritional rating and identify similar foods that are healthier. The app provides a simple Health Star Rating that scores each food between 0.5 stars (unhealthy) to 5 stars (healthiest). The scoring is based on a scientific algorithm that weights the impact of different nutrients on health. The app also provides a breakdown of the food’s fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt in grams and gives a percentage of an adult’s daily intake for each. This is shown as red, yellow and green traffic lights.

When a food gets few stars or multiple red lights, consumers can see it’s high in fat, saturated fat and sugars and salt. Users also can compare multiple products in the same category, such as regular and fat-free salad dressing, to quickly determine which product is healthier. “That’s when you should take a step back and say, ‘Maybe, I shouldn’t be eating this. What else is out there?’” Huffman says.

Packaged food manufacturers change their products frequently, which can make it difficult to track how well they are reducing sodium, added sugars or saturated fats in their foods, Huffman says. As users crowdsource new information they find on packaged foods and update the FoodSwitch database, it will become easier to track what’s in the global food supply and how healthy it is, he notes.

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Crowdsourcing obtains ideas and content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, especially from an online community.

FoodSwitch has already launched successfully in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, India, China, South Africa and Hong Kong. By expanding the app’s reach to the U.S., which has the largest food supply in the world (about 400,000 foods compared to 150,000 foods in Australia, says Northwestern), the number of foods in the FoodSwitch database should more than double.

“The U.S. food supply is large and unique,” Huffman says. “Whether it’s South Asian foods or Ethiopian grocery stores, we’ll be able to capture that scope, size and detail.”

An undisclosed amount of funding to launch FoodSwitch USA was provided by One Brave Idea, a research program sponsored by the American Heart Association, Verily (formerly Google Life Sciences) and drug maker AstraZeneca.

The Apple and Google version of FoodSwitch is free for consumers to download, Northwestern says.

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