FoodSwitch: Testing the Effectiveness of a Food Information App to Promote the Selection of Healthier Foods

Principal Investigators: 
L'Abbé, Mary (University of Toronto)
 
Co-Applicants: 
N/A
 

1. The Health Problem/Issue

The percentage of Canadian adults and children who are overweight and obese has risen dramatically over the past 25 years. Approximately one-quarter of adults are obese, and an additional 37% are overweight. Overweight and obesity increase the risk of chronic diseases (for example, cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and diabetes), while lowering quality of life and life expectancy, and dramatically increasing health care costs. Therefore, Canadians’ eating habits need to change. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion when it comes to understanding nutrition information on food packages (for example, the Nutrition Facts table, the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s "Health Check" symbol or Kellogg’s "Get the Facts" symbol), thus making it difficult for consumers to choose healthy products. In today’s busy and fast-paced shopping environment, mobile digital technology (for example, Smartphone applications) can help consumers make ‘healthier’ food choices when they are shopping.
 

2. The Objectives 

The main goal of this study is to use a Smartphone application “FoodSwitch” to understand how different types of nutrition information can impact the foods that consumers buy. More specifically, we will test two different types of nutrition information (1) Traffic Lights; and (2) a 3 Star system to try to understand which nutrition information system would help consumers make the healthiest food choices.
 

3. The Approach 

Participants for this study will be divided into two groups. Each participant will see a different nutrition information system when they scan a product’s barcode with their phone. The first group of participants will see an information system that provides details about specific nutrients in the food (such as calories, sodium, and sugar) with traffic light colours for high (Red), Medium (Yellow), or Low (Green). The second group of participants will see the Institute of Medicine's recommended Star system, which shows 0 to 3 stars indicating how healthy the food is, as well as calorie information. In addition, all of the participants will be provided with the "FoodSwitch", feature on their Smartphone that provides them with suggestions for healthier food or beverage choices. Food purchases over a period of time will be tracked and compared between consumers who saw the different nutrition information systems and those who did not.
 

4. The Unique Factors

This project will be unique in several ways. It will be the first study to test different nutrition information systems on the actual food purchases of Canadian shoppers in a “real-world” setting. It will also allow us to understand the added benefit of using the different Smartphone apps compared to the current nutrition information systems that consumers see in stores or on food packages - such as the Nutrition Facts table.
 
Our lab group has developed a Canadian food and beverage database that contains nutrient level information for over 15,500 Canadian foods and beverages, by brand name. This information will be used to create the nutrition information systems that will be provided in the Smartphone app. We are the only group in Canada who are capable of doing this research, as we are the only Canadian group with a database containing the nutrient levels for most of the national and private branded foods sold in Canada.
 

5. How the project is relevant to the objectives of the initiative

The World Health Organization, Health Canada and others have called for interventions that increase healthy eating. They recommend that Canadians lower their intakes of calories, fat, saturated fat, sodium and sugars and increase vegetable and fruit intakes. Most of these have been shown to directly reduce heart disease and stroke and/or lower the risk for obesity. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada promotes healthy eating with their Health Check logo, and through many other nutritional programs, policy statements and educational efforts. This study will help us and the Heart and Stroke Foundation understand the type of additional nutrition information that can help Canadian consumers make healthier food choices.
 

6. The Impact

Canadians find it difficult to use the information on the mandatory Nutrition Facts table that is on all food products to choose healthy foods. For those who have heart disease and/or stroke, it is particularly important that they manage their diets, reducing their intakes of saturated fat and sodium and also avoid foods high in sugar and calories. Our lab group has shown in an earlier study that people with hypertension look for sodium levels on food labels and find it difficult to find the healthiest products among the vast array of choices on supermarket shelves. Our proposed Smartphone app will make finding the healthier food choices easier. At end of the study, we will release the best app to the general public.
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