Scan 20 000 foods for instant nutritional info: traffic light app launched

Despite the federal government’s decision not to introduce traffic light labeling on packaged foods sold in Australia, a health research group has launched a smartphone application with the system.

The ‘FoodSwitch app, which can rate 20 000 packaged foods available in Australian supermarkets, has been launched through a collaboration between the George Instiute and leading health organisation Bupa.

A similar application was launched by the Obesity Policy Coalition in September 2011, in the midst of debate between health advocates and industry representatives about the pros and cons of the traffic light system.

Consumer watchdog CHOICE has been a vocal advocate of mandatory implementation of the traffic light system in all packaged foods sold in Australian supermarkets.

The system would provide a red, amber or green light for sugar, fat and salt in a product, red would be foods to avoid, amber foods to enjoy occasionally and green for foods that are healthy choices.

But the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) maintains the traffic light labeling is too simplistic to work, as foods such as unsalted nuts or cheese, which make up an important part of a healthy diet, would earn a red light that would turn consumers off purchasing.

After much debate and public scrutiny, the Gillard government announced in December it would be unveiling a simple, easy-to-understand labeling system for foods sold in Australia, within the next year.

While it won’t be exactly the traffic light system, it will provide consumers easy information at a glance, but Julie Anne Mitchell from the Heart Foundation told Food Magazine the labeling must compare like products to provide relevant information.

“The Heart Foundation supports some type of interpretive system that is going to help mother or father in a supermarket chose a healthier option in a range,” she said.

“People need help, they do need a way to identify a healthier food product amongst other similar ones.

“Were not specifying the type of labelling, but something that allows them to compare like with like in a certain food group.

“It’s not about having the one system for everything, but for each food category or it could become a bit too simplistic.”

The traffic light app launched by the George Institute is the result of more than three years of research by pre-eminent food and health policy experts.

Consumers who download the app will scan the barcode of packaged foods with their smartphone’s camera, which will then provide immediate nutritional information on the product.

Senior Director of the George Institute Professor Bruce Neal said the app provides a simple way for people to male healthy food choices while on the go.

“Australians can now scan barcodes, see what’s in a food, and switch to a healthier choice in an instant,” he said.

“Choosing a healthier diet has to be made easier, because good eating habits are one of the best and most cost-effective ways to prevent disease.

“For too long, Australians have grappled with confusing food labels.

“And with FoodSwitch there is no reason why this should continue”, Professor Neal said.

Part of the AFGC’s argument against the traffic light system was that Daily Intake Guides (DIG’s) provide more well-rounded, detailed nutritional information, but in August last year a Newspoll survey found that while most people understand DIG’s, few people use them to make better decisions.

Whether incorporating modern technology into the process, or the government’s alternative will make the difference remains to be seen, but the amount of health organisations and government policy involved in the issue demonstrates an agreement that something has to be done to curb the obesity epidemic.


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