New ‘traffic light’ app to help Hong Kong fatties stay on course in the supermarket

An app, developed with help from University of Hong Kong researchers, hopes to make light work of staying healthy for Hongkongers whose shopping carts have a tendency to swerve towards unhealthy items in the supermarket.

Launched today, FoodSwitch HK uses a “traffic light” color-coded system to inform shoppers about the contents of food and drink products on sale in the city, according to HKU.

Shoppers with the app can scan a product’s barcode with their cell phone and find out the fat, salt, sugar and energy content — with unhealthy items flagged red, healthy marked green and those in between tagged as amber.

The app also offers up healthier alternatives when available, a choice that many Hongkongers would do well to heed, given recent government research revealing about 50 percent of the city’s residents aged between 15 and 84 years of age are overweight.

The service was developed by HKU’s School of Biological Sciences and the George Institute for Global Health, which has already introduced similar apps in Australia, India, China and the US.

Created by HKU’s Jimmy Louie, the Hong Kong database contains info about nearly 13,000 products sold in the city’s major supermarket chain stores and will be regularly updated, including by crowdsourcing.

“More than half of adults in Hong Kong  are now overweight or obese and we believe that’s largely because of the foods they are being increasingly exposed to,” said Dr. Louie, an assistant professor in food and nutritional science.

“More and more people are eating processed foods which are laden in sugar, fat and salt. If we can cause consumers to stop and think, that we hope will lead to the food industry to start making healthier foods.”

Researchers also used the data to analyze the salt levels in common processed foods, with some noodles containing several times the recommended daily sodium level.

“Overall, the median sodium content in the foods analyzed was high, with a typical single serve size meeting 20-69% of the WHO salt target,” the report stated.

“It is very likely that an individual would exceed the WHO daily salt target by consuming a combination of these foods across the day.”

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