Power in your hands: FoodSwitch and ecoSwitch

FoodSwitch

The purpose of FoodSwitch is to bring transparency to the world’s food supply with a vision of an optimised food system for human health and the health of our planet. 

There are many studies highlighting the link between diet, ill-health and disease. Globally, 1 in 5 deaths are associated with poor diet, with cardiovascular disease being the biggest contributor, followed by cancers and type 2 diabetes. Additionally, it is estimated that between 30% and 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe) are attributable to the food system.

To achieve this, we collect and analyse data from packaged food labels and currently hold food composition data from 17 jurisdictions worldwide. The data is used for research and advocacy to influence government policy and industry practice toward improved food environments. Additionally, our FoodSwitch App allows consumers to make better food choices by providing simple health and nutrition information on a scanned product and suggesting healthier alternatives to 'switch' to.

Recognising the global challenge of climate change and environmental degradation, we have applied our data to estimate the carbon impact of packaged foods and have developed a Planetary Health Rating to score packaged food items in Australia on the basis of their estimated greenhouse gas emissions. We have also created the ecoSwitch app – that uses this rating system to help consumers choose better foods for our planet.

The FoodSwitch and ecoSwitch apps are available in Australia and can be downloaded here:

The FoodSwitch app is also available for download in the following countries:

How FoodSwitch works

The FoodSwitch app works by using your mobile phone camera to scan the barcode of a packaged food. It then uses science-based algorithms to calculate and then display simple nutrition profiles of the food

Scan

Scanning the barcode of a packaged food will find the data and calculations held in our database.  This is presented as easy-to-understand nutrition information that can be viewed as either a Health Star Rating (HSR) or traffic-light coloured icons for key nutrients and energy.

Foodswitch barcode scan packaged food

 

Viewing mode

The 'Health Star Rating' scores a food between 0.5 stars (least healthy) to 5 stars (healthiest). In the Traffic Light viewing mode, colour-coded icons show the amount of adverse nutrients such as fat, salt and sugar. Green indicates a healthier choice with lower levels of these nutrients, amber has medium levels, with red indicating higher levels and is least healthy.

Foodswitch barcode scan packaged food

 

 

Healthier choices

As well as the nutrition information, FoodSwitch displays a list of similar products that you can switch to as a healthier choice. 

FoodSwitch generates healthier choices by calculating the overall nutritional quality of different foods and comparing them. It uses the Health Star Rating algorithm to assess a range of different factors important to general health. 

Foodswitch barcode scan packaged food

 

Switches

FoodSwitch comes with alternative Switches based on different health interests.  In SaltSwitch, EnergySwitch, FatSwitch or AddedSugarSwitch, the algorithm adapts the results based on the amount of the relevant nutrient – e.g. the amount of added sugar in the product.

GlutenSwitch

GlutenSwitch helps people living with coeliac disease or a gluten intolerance to identify alternatives that are both gluten-free and healthier than the scanned item.

We have recently launched a new standalone app called GlutenSwitch with added features to help people find foods that are both declared gluten-free by the manufacturer and also foods that we have estimated as gluten-free based on their ingredients. We have also introduced a new feature that allows the user to select the store they are in to show choices that are likely available in their location.

The GlutenSwitch app is available in Australia:

GlutenSwitch App-how to use

Added Sugar 

Australians consume around 14 teaspoons of added sugar a day - two more than the 12 teaspoons limit recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Eating too many foods high in added sugars can lead to weight gain, an increased risk of obesity related diseases, and is a major risk factor in tooth decay.

added sugar

What is sugar?  

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate that occurs naturally in foods such as milk and fruit and can also be added to foods and drinks in various forms by the manufacturer or the consumer.

  • Total sugars of a product refers to the combination of sugars that are naturally present and those that are added.

  • Intrinsic and milk sugars occur in foods and drinks such as intact fruits and vegetables (i.e. fructose) and milk (i.e. lactose).

  • Added sugars are all other sugars. It is these sugars that are associated with poor health outcomes and we should avoid. They are often added by manufacturers to give greater sweetness or other desired characteristics.

What is added sugar? 

There is currently no regulatory definition of added sugars in the Australia and New Zealand Food Standards Code (FSANZ). As of late 2022, FSANZ have commenced a targeted and public consultation around added sugar labelling including the definition, that will underpin how added sugars are quantified on the NIP. As part of this consultation, we have proposed a definition that includes all sugars associated with poor health outcomes. Added sugars can be defined as sugars added during cooking or manufacturing or naturally present in processed fruit and vegetables when sugars are no longer in their natural cellular structure.

Estimating added sugar 

Information on added sugars is not currently required on a food label, meaning consumers have no easy way to identify the added sugars they should be avoiding. Furthermore, added sugar ingredients are often disguised under many different names so it makes it hard to identify them. We have developed a 10-step method that analyses the ingredients and nutrition information available on a food’s label to estimate its added sugar content (see FAQs for further details).

added sugar weight

Our calculated added sugar values can be seen on the FoodSwitch app. Each food item has been assigned an added sugar value per 100g using the above method. A blue icon titled “Added Sugar” can be found under the product information of a scanned item. The calculated added sugar value has been expressed in two ways:

The calculated value in grams per 100 grams. 

The approximate number of teaspoons rounded to the nearest half teaspoon. One teaspoon (1 tsp.) is equal to 4.2grams of sugar

If the product is declared to have “no added sugar” or is found to have 0g of added sugar, the icon will read as “Not present”.

You should look for products with no or lower added sugar.

Planetary Health

Planetary Health can be defined as “the health of human civilization and the natural systems on which it depends” and recognizes that human health and the health of our planet are inextricably linked. The global food system is estimated to generate 30%-40% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe) and is a key contributor to climate change. The Eat-Lancet commission on Food, Planet, Health cited food as “the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth” 

planetary health

 

Image: Eat Lancet Commission report 

To fulfil our vision of an optimised food system for human health and the health of our planet, we have developed a ‘Planetary Health Rating’ scheme to estimate the GHGe associated with different packaged foods. Our aim is to help consumers make more informed choices about the foods based on their climate impact by providing a product-specific rating and subsequently a ‘Switch’ that suggests alternative products that have a lower climate impact.

Our approach assigns a GHGe estimate to individual food and beverage products in five steps. Step 1 employs a mathematical technique to estimate the quantity of each of ingredient in a product using its ingredient list and nutrient information. In step 2, Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) data are used to provide estimates of the amount of GHGe associated with different Australian ingredients. In Step 3, these LCA data are applied to the ingredient breakdowns in Step 1 and then adjusted to include rough modifications for processing and transport to create individual GHGe scores for each item. In Step 4, the range of scores are used to create a Planetary Health Rating system from 0.5 stars to 5.0 stars. Finally, in Step 5, each item gets a star rating based on its GHGe score.

The Rating scheme

planetary health rating 

Similar to HSR, the Planetary Health Rating displays stars from 0.5 stars up to 5.0 stars. The more stars means the food is better for planetary health as it is associated with lower GHG emissions. Fewer stars means that the food category is worse for planetary health as it is associated with higher GHG emissions and. Additionally, the stars have also been colour coded to help with their interpretation.

ecoSwitch

ecoSwitch rating

The ecoSwitch app provides Australian consumers a way of understanding the greenhouse impact of packaged foods and to choose alternatives to switch to that are less harmful to our planet. The app also displays expanded data on a product that includes sustainability-related information such as its country of origin information; level of processing using the NOVA classification; and sustainability claims, as well as its health and nutrition information.

ecoSwitch sustainability

Want to know more? Talk to our team!  

This feature is being continuously developed, and we welcome any feedback or questions. You can give feedback or ask a question by email at mobilefeedback@georgeinstitute.org.au 

FAQs

What is FoodSwitch?

FoodSwitch gives you immediate, easy-to-understand information about packaged food products, as well as a list of similar foods that are healthier choices. You can access this through the app by scanning the product barcode using your smartphone camera.

Each nutrient in a product in FoodSwitch has been rated and by using the colour-coded Traffic-Light Labels, it makes it easy to see how healthy a food is based on nutrients like total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.

How do I understand the results if I’m viewing results in Health Star Rating mode?

Each product you see in FoodSwitch has been rated for its amount of energy, saturated fat, sugar and salt, as well as for other important food components including protein, dietary fibre, fruit vegetables nuts and legumes (FVNL) content, and for some products, calcium. The Health Star Rating (HSR) considers all of these factors to give you an idea of how healthy the product is overall; a lower star rating indicates a less healthy choice and a higher star rating indicates a healthier choice.

How do I understand results in Traffic Light Label mode?

Each product in FoodSwitch is rated for its total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content. The Traffic Light ratings tell you if a product is low (green), medium (amber), or high (red) in these food components, based on widely-accepted nutritional standards.

How are healthier choices identified?

The app identifies healthier choices by comparing the overall nutritional value of foods. The algorithm used is based on the nutrient profiling system, which was originally developed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand. It takes into account the different factors important to good nutrition, including fats, sugars, salt, energy, protein, dietary fibre, fruit vegetables nuts and legumes (FVNL) content, and (for some products) calcium.

Why is there a difference between the amount of salt displayed in FoodSwitch and the amount of sodium on the nutrition label of the packaging of a product?

FoodSwitch in Traffic Light Label mode displays values for salt, while the nutrition label on the packaging of a product usually lists sodium. The difference is that salt is made up of sodium and chloride. To get the salt content of a product, you would need to multiply the amount of sodium by 2.5. FoodSwitch has already done this calculation for you.

Where does the nutritional information come from?

FoodSwitch is powered by a large, independent packaged food products database. However, because there are always new products coming on the market and some products are only available in certain areas, not all food products available in your country are in the database yet. This is why we encourage FoodSwitch users to help us add to the database using the “help us out” functionality.

How can you be sure the information on the food label is correct?

We trust manufacturers to put the correct information on label. If something unusual is noticed please use the “Report Issue” function in the app to send us information.

What if the product I scan isn’t in the database?

If you scan a packaged food product that isn’t in the database, you’ll be invited to help us out, by taking four photos – one of the barcode, one of the front of pack, one of the nutrition label and one of the ingredient list. FoodSwitch will then automatically email these pictures to us to validate the item and add it to the database.

Please note that with users contributing hundreds of photos to the database every day, it can take some time for the product to appear in the FoodSwitch app. We also need to complete a series of quality control checks before listing products on the app.

Why are the products listed in the Healthier Choices not available in this store? 

Products may be listed in several retailers or sometimes only in one. Also, products may only be available in certain sized stores or in certain regions. The app lists  healthier choices that have been captured on a national basis and so may not be available at a particular store. 

How can I be sure the information is correct? 

The database is updated regularly and undergoes several stages of check. If you find an error, please contact us on the website, or by email at foodswitch@georgeinstitute.org.au.  

Do you have any relationship with food manufacturers? Will they provide any funding to you so that their product can be recommended? 

We have no commercial relationship with any food manufacturers that would affect information presented. Products are rated using science-based methods and alternatives are recommended solely on the basis of their healthiness. 

Why are we using Australian-based algorithms and UK-based standards? How do we think these are applicable for global consumers? 

The health issues caused by packaged foods are essentially the same irrespective of nationality. Excess quantities of salt, sugar, harmful fat and calories are a problem for everyone. The Australian and UK profiling models have undergone a lot of scrutiny and validation.  

Is the ‘Healthier Choice’ recommendation good for all customers? 

The healthier choices we suggest are based on typical adult consumers. People with particular diseases like high blood pressure or high cholesterol may need more specific advice. 

What is front-of-pack (FoP) labelling? 

Around the world, compulsory food composition labelling on packaged food products needs to include a nutrition label. This is often found on the back of the product in very small print. Studies show that the nutrition label only influences the food purchases of a small minority of people who are very motivated and well informed about how to make healthier food choices. Many studies suggest that front-of-pack (FoP) labelling systems such as the Health Star Rating can help consumers interpret the information and make healthier food choices. 

Why use Health Star Ratings? 

In June 2014, the Australian government agreed to the voluntary implementation of an interpretive ‘Health Star Rating’ (HSR) front-of-pack labelling system for packaged foods in Australia. The HSR System is based on an algorithm that awards a star rating, based on the quantity of specific food components within the product, which gives you an idea of how healthy the product is overall – a lower star rating indicates a less healthy choice and a higher star rating indicates a healthier choice. 

The HSR system then makes it easier for you to compare similar products within a food category, based on their number of stars. This highlights that while all foods can have a place in your diet, some are better for you than others. 

Why use Traffic Light Labels? 

Research shows some people find colour-coded labelling easier to understand than other systems. The Traffic Light Labels display colour ratings based on 100g of a product. This helps consumers compare products quickly and easily. If a specific nutrient of a product has any nutritional data missing, it will appear in grey with a dash (-) under the nutrient that is missing. 

How do I get the FoodSwitch app? 

Download FoodSwitch from either the Apple App Store or Google Play store using your mobile device. 

The app is free of charge. An internet connection (mobile data or Wi-Fi) is required to download it. Standard usage charges may apply if using mobile data – check with your internet and mobile service providers for more information. 

Can I use the app outside my country? 

FoodSwitch is designed specifically for each country and is different in each country in which it is released. This is because the barcodes on foods are specific to each country. For example, if you use the Australian version of FoodSwitch outside of Australia it will likely give incorrect results. 

How do you estimate added-sugar in a product?

The 10-step method builds on an initial research study that estimated added sugar values on the basis of analytical data and ingredients in FoodSwitch. This method has been modified to apply to packaged food products in FoodSwitch. The method is summarised in more detail below:

Steps 1&2 - Products are evaluated directly, based on the nutrition information available on the label.

Step 3&4 - Products are evaluated based on the presence or absence of added sugar ingredients. 

Step 5&6 - Products are evaluated based on their food category - those assessed as being unprocessed or minimally processed with no added sugar (Step 5) and then those that generally contain minimal amounts of naturally occurring sugar (Step 6)

Step 7 - Products are evaluated based on nutrition information (lactose) declared on the label.

Step 8 - Products are evaluated by comparing to a similar reference food with no added sugar

Step 9&10 - Products are evaluated based on a category proportional method whereby the category is assigned the same proportion of added sugar as a reference category (Step 9) with the remaining categories assigned 50% of sugars as added sugar (Step 10).

Limitations

Category level assignments and other assumptions are made in assigning a food an added sugar value. There are therefore inherent limitations in the accuracy of the value assigned to any food without added sugar information on its label. FoodSwitch will continue to develop the approach to provide more accurate estimates for added sugar.

Who do I contact if I have a question that hasn’t been answered here? 

You can give feedback or ask a question by email at mobilefeedback@georgeinstitute.org.au 

TERMS OF USE

Download and read the FoodSwitch Global Terms of Use (PDF 115KB)

Download and read the FoodSwitch Australia Terms of Use (PDF 305KB)

PRIVACY POLICY

Download and read the FoodSwitch Australia Privacy Policy (PDF 114KB)

DISCLAIMERS

© The George Institute for Global Health 2017.

FoodSwitch provides nutritional information based on a scientific algorithm developed by The George Institute for Global Health and is licensed from time to time to individual Sponsors to agreed territories.

The information has been developed and reviewed by health professionals and to the best of our knowledge is current and based on reputable sources of evidence at the time of publishing. Whilst every care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the data, no warranty of this accuracy is provided. Some data required by the algorithm have been estimated to enable ranking of products. All users, especially those with special dietary requirements or food sensitivities, should assess the accuracy and relevance of this information for their personal circumstances.

The information should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical advice. The George Institute along with their sponsors and related entities are not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information, except that which cannot be excluded by law. For further Terms of Use please visit https://www.georgeinstitute.org.au/sites/default/files/foodswitch-terms-of-use.pdf.

We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your, or your family’s health.

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Further reading