FoodSwitch is a public health project whose success illustrates the power of big data analytics and the potential of research charities becoming self-funding.

Australia’s George Institute for Global Health is responsible for a swathe of successful public health initiatives including the high profile FoodSwitch app which uses smartphone technology to help shoppers make healthier choices in the supermarket.

Established in 1999 in Sydney, The George Institute is a world-leading medical research institute. It has raised more than $750 million for research into chronic diseases and injury and has over 600 staff globally.

The Institute’s portfolio of projects ranges from preventative programs to clinical studies into the safest and best ways to treat and prevent the leading causes of death and disability, such as stroke, heart and kidney diseases and diabetes.

Using big data to raise research revenue

Raising money to support its research and advocacy programs at home and abroad is an ongoing challenge and the Institute has recently turned its attention to making its innovative FoodSwitch programme financially self-sustainable.

Developed with the support of health insurance fund Bupa, FoodSwitch is a health project that collects, curates and analyses data on the foods sold in a country. The FoodSwitch consumer app analyses food packaging labels and suggests healthier options for a shopper and allows users to set customised priorities, such as identifying products lower in salt or sugar, or which are gluten free. The programme has been highly successful, illustrating the power and potential of big data to both consumers and industry.

The Institute has launched FoodSwitch at a time when national obesity epidemics are putting pressure on public health budgets in Australia and other developed countries – 63 per cent of Australian adults and 25 per cent of Australian children are overweight or obese, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

The FoodSwitch app has been downloaded more than 750,000 times in Australia and localised versions have been launched in New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, China and India.

While the app is free for consumers, The George Institute has been able to monetise the project, with a growing number of manufacturers and retailers willing to pay for access to its repository of food-related data, according to the managing director of FoodSwitch, Fraser Taylor.

“Understanding nutritional value and where their products sit in the market can influence how manufacturers develop and re-engineer products and the choices retailers make around the range of products they stock,” Taylor says.

“If companies and organisations want to access our food data for commercial reasons, we’re happy to sell it to them. Our goal is for the FoodSwitch program to become self-funding. We’re not there yet but we do believe more companies will be willing to pay to access this data.”

“We’re always looking for new and innovative ways to raise the money we need to support our work to improve the health of people around the world. Collaborations and partnerships are also key to this,” Taylor says.

Analysing what we eat

FoodSwitch owes its success to the prescience of epidemiologist and Food Policy Division and Deputy Executive Director of The George Institute Australia, Professor Bruce Neal, according to Taylor.

“Diet is a big factor in heart disease, type two diabetes and obesity, all of which are proliferating in the developed world. So if your mission is to improve public health, the number one thing you can do is improve what people eat,” Taylor says.

“Bruce has long experience with clinical trials and hospital medicine and was struck by how effective the application of big data could be in convincing clinical stakeholders and patients of the benefits of particular outcomes or directions.

“Back in 2008 he had the idea of seeing how this might play out in the food space, reflecting on the observations that poor dietary choices were causing many of the heart attacks and strokes that his clinical research was addressing. Perhaps comprehensive, up-to-date information about food could be used to persuade consumers and the food industry to improve their behaviours too.

“There’s a lot of nutritional data on packaging already but research has indicated people find it confusing and not that useful. What the FoodSwitch app does is help people visualise that data as health star ratings or traffic lights and offer alternative products which are healthier. It’s a practical way to encourage them to make more informed decisions about what they feed themselves and their families.”

The project kicked off with Neal’s team of research assistants building a database of products by visiting supermarkets and transcribing nutritional data from cereal boxes and biscuit packets, one item at a time.

Harnessing the power of crowdsourcing helped speed up what was a time-consuming and laborious process and today the FoodSwitch database contains a detailed breakdown on more than 500,000 grocery lines.

Partnering with NAB

Having recently become a NAB customer, Taylor says the Institute values the bank’s breadth of expertise, as a leading financial services partner to organisations across the health sector.

“We’re looking forward to working closely with NAB as we continue our mission to make the world a healthier place,” he says.

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