University of Toronto
Toronto ON, Canada
In 2016 the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto initiated a project to develop an app to study how the Canadian public would respond to nutrition profiling – defined as the “science of classifying or ranking foods according to their nutritional composition for reasons related to preventing disease and promoting health”.
The team at University of Toronto had created, over the period of many years, a large independent packaged food database. This database contains over 15,000 unique food items from top grocers in the Canadian marketplace and they wanted to leverage this database to power the app.
We met with the team from University of Toronto at their offices within the Department of Nutritional Sciences. The goal of the app was two-fold. First the app had to support a specific group of individuals who would be involved in an ongoing research study. Second the app was to be open to all Canadians who were interested in learning more about the food they ate on a daily basis.
While the team at the University of Toronto knew their end goal and were excited about the eventual research they would be able to conduct, they were unfamiliar on the process of developing and deploying an app.
The first step on the project was to create a name and brand for the new app. Over the course of several meetings we lead a brainstorming process though many ideas and concepts for the app brand. Eventually we developed the name “FoodFlip” with a stylized grocery cart graphically displaying a “F” and an upside down “F” representing the name of the app. The branding represented the concept of the user switching, or “flipping”, to healthier food items while in the process of grocery shopping.
The app itself, built on the iOS and Android platforms, and available in English and French, allows the user to immediately look up nutritional information on a food or beverage they may wish to purchase. The app allows the user to scan the barcode of the food or beverage item using the smartphone camera within the app or by searching for the product using the built-in search tool.
The barcode or search criteria is process by the app and sent to the central database holding over 15,000 unique food items. Each product in the database has been rated by a nutrient profiling algorithm that considers nutrients such as saturated fat, sodium, sugar as well as other nutrients and ingredients including protein, fibre, fruits, and vegetables. The results from the algorithm are calculated and sent back to the app where they are presented to the user in a clear and simple graphical representation. For the public use of the app, this representation is a traffic light (red, yellow, green), with healthier choices highlighted in green.
The benefit of requiring the app to connect to a centralized database of food items is three-fold. First, as new items enter the market, they can be added to the database with the corresponding nutritional information. Secondly, if the nutritional data on a food item is modified, this can be adjusted in the database. Lastly, the algorithm calculating the nutritional value of a food item can be adjusted and improved over time. This ensures a quality nutritional database without the need to modify or update the app.
For the study component of the app, the University of Toronto divided their study participants into three groups. The first group would receive nutritional guidance on the food items they scanned via a star rating (1 star up to 5 stars). The second group would receive nutritional guidance on the food items they scanned via a traffic light rating (red, yellow, green). The third group would receive nutritional guidance on the food items they scanned from information displayed on the nutritional facts panel.
Each individual in the study received a unique study code. Upon launching the app, the participant would indicate they were involved in the study, and enter their study code into the login screen. The app would confirm their study code on the database, and as the user interfaced with the app, data about the user’s habits was synchronized from the app to the central database for eventual research by the University of Toronto team.
The app was launched in the fall of 2016 and has been hugely successful. The app is still active and provides users with up to date nutritional information on the food and beverages they consume while, at the same time, providing the team at the University of Toronto important information to help in their ongoing research on how to continually improve the nutritional health of Canadians.
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