New FoodSwitch app helps you shop for healthier options
Millions of Americans have tried a digital approach to nutrition — like the carb-counting Atkins app or Weight Watchers’ point system or the ever popular MyFitnessPal.
The FoodSwitch app, which launched in June, is a collaboration of The George Institute for Global Health in Australia, data from Chicago-based Label Insight, and academic support from Northwestern.
“We needed a system to monitor what’s in the food supply in order to improve the helpfulness of what we eat every day,” said Dr. Mark Huffman, associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine.
“(Users) could range from people with conditions such as elevated blood pressure to families looking to make healthier lunch choices for their kids at school,” said Huffman, who collaborated on FoodSwitch. “The app is designed to meet people where they are. … I understand that some people will still be eating (Froot Loops), so we’re trying to help people find alternatives closer to what they are interested in.”
Karen Raden, a registered dietitian based in Chicago, said that whether or not a digital approach to nutrition works is very person-specific.
“If (the app) brings freedom and education, it’s very empowering,” says Raden. “Even if people aren’t tracking the exact perfect stuff, it helps with making better choices.” In contrast, she said, some people may be stressed or feel micromanaged by a nutrition app, and she wouldn’t recommend it to those who obsess over food, such as people with an eating disorder.
I’m a pretty health-conscious person who buys a mixture of produce and meats, supplemented by packaged items (FoodSwitch only includes information for packaged items). To test the app, I went to Mariano’s, narrowed my standard grocery list to 10 items and tried to find healthier alternatives. All 10 items had a few things in common — they were popular brands with a reputation for being not so healthy.
“If you are choosing packaged foods, labels can be confusing,” Raden said. “If there is an app that says ‘choose this one over that one,’ that can be eye-opening.”
Give it a scan
The app’s interface is easy to navigate and includes a bar code scanner, a list of recently scanned items and a “compare items” function. I found it easy to scan food and see the rating, nutrition information and suggested healthier items. Here’s a look at my experience.
Cereal: This was an interesting one. Finding healthy cereal is a constant battle in my household — I like Special K; my boyfriend prefers the sugary kids stuff. I started scanning. The app couldn’t find Special K, Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Reese’s Puffs. Aren’t those classics? It finally found Froot Loops and suggested some other fruity, circular puff-type alternatives.
Coffee creamer: My go-to is flavored Nestle Coffee-mate. Unsurprisingly, FoodSwitch said it was unhealthy and offered several alternatives, including Dunkin’ Donuts unsweetened creamer, which I ultimately purchased.
Yogurt: Chobani nonfat Greek yogurt is one of my favorites. It had a five-star rating — the healthiest option, according to the app. FoodSwitch also suggested Dannon Oikos triple-zero blended Greek yogurt as another five-star option. I located it pretty quickly.
Milk: When I scanned Horizon Organic Lowfat Milk (1 percent), FoodSwitch suggested Fairlife brand as a healthier alternative, which was about $1 cheaper. One problem: Fairlife is a nonorganic, ultra-filtered, lactose-free milk — aka a fairly different product altogether, likely a deal breaker for organic-conscious eaters.
Potatoes: I scanned frozen Simply Potatoes Southwest-style hash browns because I love breakfast skillets. I always assumed I was indulging, but FoodSwitch gave it a 4.5-star rating. With this endorsement, Sunday brunch just got a little bit better.
Ranch dressing: I usually opt for Hidden Valley. FoodSwitch presented me with several healthier options, as I expected, because ranch is so high in fat. I gave up after not being able to locate the first three recommendations. Maybe they were in the fancy refrigerated dressing section? I moved on, Hidden Valley in hand.
Hot dogs: Oscar Mayer premium beef franks scored a whopping one-star health rating. But again, I couldn’t easily locate FoodSwitch’s healthier alternatives — mostly chicken and turkey varieties. I would’ve loved to find any of those, all of which held a four-plus-star health rating, but again to no avail.
Pizza: I plugged in two well-known frozen pizza brands, Diiorno and Tombstone (both of which had three stars) and found the healthier alternatives to be obvious — Atkins, Smart Ones, some organic brand. So again, not much gained by using FoodSwitch.
Ice cream: Searching for chocolate peanut butter cup Talenti gelato, the results were wild. The first suggestion was a vanilla and blueberry gelato, the second was something with cashews and chocolate creme of some sort. My craving for peanut butter wasn’t exactly met.
Alcohol: None. Zip, Zero. Zilch. If you’re looking for healthier alternatives to your beloved libations, you’ll have to look elsewhere — the Foodswitch database doesn’t include alcohol at the moment.
This became a running theme. Although FoodSwitch boasts more than 250,000 products in its database, I consistently came up empty (add La Croix, and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to the list). Was I in the wrong area of the store? Was I supposed to shop at Whole Foods where the less common, “healthier” brands are? That said, FoodSwitch constantly updates its database via crowdsourcing, prompting users to help out by sending a picture of the package, bar code, ingredients and nutrition panel when an item is not found.
Also worth noting, it takes time to scan things and even more time to hunt down the healthier alternatives, making it difficult if you’re in a rush or shopping with kids.
FoodSwitch is free, so it doesn’t hurt to have on hand. Maybe you only use it occasionally. Maybe you use it to clean out your pantry and decide what to toss and keep. Even if you eliminate two or three poorly rated items, that’s a healthier kitchen, right?
Like almost everything else in the health realm, getting the most out of nutrition apps takes dedication.
FoodSwitch is available for free in the Apple and Google Play app stores.
Susan Moskop is a writer for the Chicago Tribune.