Smartphone app to help switch to healthier foods

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Disease associated with obesity costs the NHS about £11bn a year, said Susan Jebb
Disease associated with obesity costs the NHS about £11bn a year, said Susan Jebb

Related tags: Nutrition

People who are overweight and identified as being at higher risk of cardiovascular disease could soon have access to a smartphone app that provides them with advice about swapping to healthier foods, thanks to a collaborative research project involving public health researchers and an unnamed UK supermarket chain.

The study makes use of the nutrient profile of shoppers’ baskets to identify when they contain large numbers of products with red front-of-pack traffic light nutritional labels for saturated fat, sugar and salt. By using the app, they would be re-directed to healthier versions of similar products in-store.

“We are just about to embark on two new trials where we motivate and support individuals to make changes in their diet,”​ said Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford. Jebb was giving the British Nutrition Foundation’s Annual Lecture in London last November.

‘Build a partnership’

“What we are trying to do in these two studies is to build a partnership between health professionals and some digital and technological tools in order to provide people with personalised support to change their diet.”

A new generation of the FoodSwitch app on smartphones is being developed to give people the personalised dietary information they need, reported Jebb. Shoppers use the app to scan the barcode of products. It provides the nutrient profile of the foods and offers a swap to a healthier alternative.

“It will allow people to set goals and monitor their intake and then provide feedback,”​ said Jebb.

At the same time, in other projects, practice nurses in GP surgeries will work with patients with high blood pressure and raised cholesterol levels to motivate them about the importance of dietary change.

‘Nutritional feedback’

“We have partnered with one retailer,”​ said Jebb. “What we will be doing is providing people with nutritional feedback based on their loyalty card data. This will tell you about the nutritional content of your basket and provide tailored swaps and, hopefully, improve the nutritional profile of your basket.”

While Jebb did not name the supermarket involved, Tesco is known to have conducted studies to assess the overall nutrient profile of its shoppers’ baskets of food. This had clearly identified where some were over-indexing on purchases unhealthy products.

“These are both feasibility studies,”​ said Jebb. “If they show any signs of effectiveness, we will obviously take them forward into bigger more definitive trials.”

Jebb was previously chair of the Public Health Responsibility Deal Food and Drink network, which worked closely with the industry to reformulate products to reduce levels of fat, sugar and salt.

Meanwhile, children’s snack consumption should be limited to two 100-calorie products a day, Public Health England has urged parents, as part of a new campaign​ to promote healthier eating.

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