How consumer empowerment leads to corporate and legislative change

April 4, 2017
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April 4, 2017 Kendra Yoshinaga

By LAUNCH Editorial Team

Knowledge is power, so the saying goes. But real change is effected when that knowledge is applied to real-life situations, influencing behaviors and enacting change on an individual, corporate, and even legislative level.

This is the experience of LAUNCH Food innovator Bruce Neal, from The George Institute, who has developed FoodSwitch, a program that provides people with the information they need to make informed decisions about the food they consume. The program also supplies governments and industries with the data they require to provide healthier food environments.

“My background is clinical medicine, and while doctors do a great job treating those diagnosed with an illness, there’s huge scope for clinicians to do more by preventing illness from occurring in the first place. Like so many others, I see food and nutrition as the key to prevention,” Bruce says. “The clinical space in which I learned my trade is evidence-based with many highly standardized recommendations about how to treat diseases.  By contrast, there’s not a lot of information out there about the nutritional qualities of food. How can people make informed choices about the food they eat without good advice and access to data that they can understand? That was the question that inspired me to develop FoodSwitch.”

FoodSwitch started in Australia, with a collaborative group whose first task was to collect data about the Australian food supply on a massive scale. Bruce and his team started by creating a database of the nutritional profiles of every food item on Australian supermarket shelves. From that initial database, the team built an app which turned that data into information that people could use when they were doing their food shopping, and in parallel provided data about people’s search and shopping habits to business and government.

“The app was a pivotal moment for us. It allowed us to put information in the palm of a consumer’s hand, helping them to distinguish between the nutritional profiles of foods, and enabling them to make immediate and informed decisions about what they eat. Each product has an easy-to-understand star rating to help people make decisions at-a-glance,” Bruce says. “There are also a number of filter functions which makes it possible for people with health concerns, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, to find the foods most appropriate for their health needs. In fact, I see a strong clinical angle to the FoodSwitch app as an adjunct to drug therapy when treating conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure or heart problems.”

“The app has generated enormous public interest. We’ve now expanded across six countries, and are looking into increased functionalities to cater for the variety of demographics we are working with. For example, functionality which enables a user to filter for vegetarian or vegan foods is a priority in India, and the ability to find gluten-free alternatives has been hugely popular across many demographics.”

The ability of individual consumers to make informed, health-conscious and data-driven decisions sparks grassroots change that impacts more widely on society.

“The combined effect of consumers making more informed decisions about the food they buy will transform food production and the marketplace – this is where the real power of the FoodSwitch program lies. The data we collect through FoodSwitch helps food manufacturers compare the nutritional profiles of their products against their competitors’ products, and understand how they can win customers over by improving their health rating,” Bruce says.

“That has a knock-on effect: what consumers want, companies manufacture; what companies manufacture, retailers market; and what retailers market, the government regulates. Our goal is to influence every stage of that process, but in particular, we hope to see the nutritional profile of the food on supermarket shelves becoming a higher priority at a legislative level.”

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