Foodswitch UK is an app which has just been launched in the UK with the objective of assisting consumers to identify the healthier options of specific food types (1). The recommendations are based on an evaluation of the nutrition information, which can be accessed via the app by scanning the barcode. Details are presented for Calories, total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.

The app was developed in Australia by the George Institute of Global Health. Here in the UK the bodies involved are Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH), the University of Oxford and the Medical Research Council.

I have been investigating how it works in practice to find out if it can be generally helpful to consumers. First of all, it is frustrating because of the large number of products for which no information is available at the present time. Products with the Aldi brand are conspicuous by their absence. While Aldi is not one of the “Big Four” multiple food retailers, it is certainly a major player and is growing rapidly. Secondly the app is unable to suggest any healthy alternative “healthier option” for many products including Kerrygold butter and Princes tuna. It is not clear whether this means the product is to be regarded as “healthy” or that there are no “healthier options” available in the market.

However my most serious criticism relates to what I consider to be most peculiar recommendations. Here are some examples.

  • Soft drinks. The results for some soft drinks are shown in Table1.

Table 1 Nutritional values for selected soft drinks

  Calories/100g Fat, g/100g Sat Fat,g/100g Sugar,g/100g Salt,g/100g
PRODUCT   CHECKED
J2O Orange/ Passion Fruit 32 0 0 7.2 0
RECOMMENDED   HEALTHIER OPTIONS
Compal Peach 45 0.1 0 8.4 0
Compal Mango 56 0.2 0 11.0 0

 

This shows very clearly that the main differences between the various products are in the sugar contents. Both of the “healthier options” contain more sugar than the original product to be evaluated. Although there are small amounts of fat present in the “healthier options” these values are still greater than the content of the products which was being checked, which was actually zero. So effectively the sugar levels are the only factor which can be taken into consideration when determining which products is the optimum from a nutritional perspective. There is absolutely no question that the healthier product using the precise criteria adopted in the development of the app is the J2O. It should also be noted that the so-called “healthier options” contain more Calories than the J2O, which is largely a reflection of the sugar content. The evidence is piling up that excessive sugar consumption is a critical factor in the development not only of obesity but also heart disease and cancer. Therefore it follows there will have to be a significant reduction in the intake of those products, such as soft drinks which are a major contributor to sugar consumed. There is certainly no possible justification for recommending products which have a relatively high sugar content as “healthier”.

  • A second example is shown in Table 2.

Table 2 Nutritional values for selected naan breads

  Calories/100g Fat, g/100g Sat Fat,g/100g Sugar,g/100g Salt,g/100g
PRODUCT   CHECKED
CO-OP NAAN BREAD 270 5.1 0.5 1.6 0.7
RECOMMENDED   HEALTHIER OPTION
COUNTRY KITCHEN ALTERNATIVE 270 6.4 0.9 3.3 0.6

 

Here again, the amount of sugar in the “healthy option” is double that of the product checked. But it also has higher levels of both fat and saturated fat. Although the salt content is very slightly lower in the “healthy option” the differences are so small that they are within the limits of experimental error for chemical analysis and must therefore be regarded as negligible. There is no possible justification for recommending the Country Kitchen products as being healthier than the Co-op products.

  • A third example is shown in Table 3.

 

Table 3 Nutritional values for selected tomatoes

  Calories/100g Fat, g/100g Sat Fat,g/100g Sugar,g/100g Salt,g/100g
PRODUCT CHECKED
HEINZ WHOLE PEELED   TOMATOES 18 0.2 0.1 2.9 0
RECOMMENDED HEALTHIER   OPTIONS
CIRIO PEELED PLUM   TOMATOES 27 0.2 0.1 3.8 0
COOK ITALIAN CHOPPED   TOMATOES WITH CHILLI IN RICH TOMATO JUICE 28 0.3 0 4.0 0.3

 

For these products, although all the values are low it is incomprehensible that the recommended “healthier” options both have considerably more sugar than the product being assessed. In fact one of them has a higher value for salt. The reality is that all products in this category would generally be regarded as “healthy” and to try to distinguish between them must be considered a futile exercise.

The fact remains that the app is fundamentally flawed and is presenting advice to its users that is incorrect and which is genuinely misleading. This probably reflects sloppiness in the preparation of the app. The fact that these errors have been identified from an exercise with a relatively small number of products raises serious doubts about its credibility and certainly does not inspire confidence. It is evident that many of the users will be presented with information which is quite wrong so although they are making conscious effort to improve the nutritional quality of their diet may actually being doing the opposite.

Even if the mistakes identified here are rectified, there must be serious doubts about the validity of the exercise. We are all familiar with the huge effort that has been devoted to the development and promotion of “low fat” products which is often achieved by removing much of the fat and replacing it with sugar. This means that consumers who have been persuaded to choose the “healthy” low fat option actually increase their intake of sugar, which current evidence suggests is more damaging to health than the fat. Once we adopt this type of strategy it is inevitable that value judgements have to be made about the weight that should be given to the changes in the contents of the different nutrients. How on earth does one determine whether it is better to reduce salt even though there is an increase in the amount of sugar? It is just a minefield. Anyone who is genuinely interested in devising a healthy eating pattern would be well advised to focus on food categories rather than fiddling about with “healthier” variations!!

REFERENCE

  1. http://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/foodswitch/