Will Food Apps Help Your Diet, Part 1

openfoodlogoshopwell

As we ring in another new year, about 40% of people will probably make a resolution to lose weight according to Statistic Brain. I definitely include myself in that number this year. A key part of living a healthy lifestyle of course is what you eat. If you have read my blogs for any amount of time, you’ll notice that I’m passionate about food and data. Today I want to begin a two-part series on how food data has the potential to improve how we eat.

At the end of November 2016, I noticed an article about how the Swiss organization Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) launched a website called openfood.ch that served as a bridge between science and the public. The data includes nutritional information on more than 14,000 food products sold in Switzerland in one place. Consumers could use the data on their mobile devices to make better food choices when shopping. The data could help reduce consumer confusion about what’s in the food they are eating.

EPFL has used the data to make a mobile app that allows people to scan the barcode of products in large grocery stores to see their ingredients and the amount of sugar in them. EPFL hopes academia and industry will follow suit to create apps from their free data. They are certainly not the first to combine data + scanning technology to try to solve the obesity epidemic. ShopWell is an app that came out in 2013 that has a great user interface and allows consumers to compare food products based on your personal eating preferences. These are just two great examples of how technology and data are transforming how we buy food.

I would love to see success stories from users that have implemented the barcode nutrition-scanning technology into their shopping routines to make healthier food choices. The “what happens next” after the data is released is often lacking in the open data community. If the return on investment could be quantified and the stories told to a wide audience, perhaps more people would use the apps and there would be more people. In addition to capturing user stories, sometimes people need external motivations to eat healthier.

In an October 2015 blog on gluten-free apps, I talked about the benefits of tying desirable diet choices to a tax credit. One possible solution to getting people to eat a healthy diet consistently would be what psychologists call operant conditioning or rewarding the desired behavior. By rewarding people who choose a healthy food such as fruit, vegetable, lean protein rather than an unhealthy food, you are encouraging the choice. There are already numerous mobile apps that let you track what you eat. Maybe this data could be linked to IRS databases so that people who consume healthy foods at the grocery store could report their eating habits and get a tax credit for making the healthy choice each year.

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