Health and wellness

New app tells you how much salt is in that quick meal you just bought in Hong Kong, and the results will probably shock you

Using a simple colour or star rating, FoodSwitch HK will show consumers how healthy a product is when its bar code is scanned by a smartphone

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 1:58pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 11:31pm

Want to know if your tuna, bacon or cup of noodles is too salty? Then the University of Hong Kong has just served up the perfect app for you.

Just scan the bar code of a food product in any store using the FoodSwitch HK app. If it is in a database of 13,000 pre-packaged products, you will see a simple colour or star rating that tells you how salty it is.

The Chinese-language version of the app was launched on Tuesday by its joint developers, HKU’s school of biological sciences and The George Institute for Global Health in Australia. FoodSwitch is already being used in a host of countries around the world, including Britain, Australia, and the United States.

Dr Jimmy Louie Chun-yu, assistant professor in food and nutritional science at HKU, said based on several studies, Hongkongers were eating up to 10 grams of salt a day, twice the World Health Organisation’s recommended daily intake.

And more than three-quarters of this came from packaged food, he said.

Louie, a registered dietitian, described the database of 13,000 food items as “comprehensive” but urged consumers to add new products into the database by using the app regularly.

Currently, the database has commonly-eaten items such as luncheon meat, bacon, tuna, noodles, bread and eggs, and it shows that their salt content varies widely.

For example, a can of shredded pork and preserved vegetables had 9.8 grams of salt per 100 grams, while turkey luncheon meat had 3 grams and Spanish Iberico luncheon meat had 1.2 grams of salt.

The HKU team, who collected information on the products over 15 days last June and July from ParknShop, Wellcome and AEON, also found some brands of canned tuna contained 125 times more salt than others.

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The worst offenders were noodles. A cup of instant noodles contained 7.7 grams of salt per 100 grams while salt-flavoured ramen had 20 grams of salt per 100 grams, Louie said.

Louie said that while all pre-packaged food items had nutrition labels, listing sodium levels as well, the font was often too small and the numbers meant little to consumers.

Hong Kong did not have a system like Britain, which has used red labels for unhealthy food and green for healthy products for 10 years, while Australia has used a star rating system for five years.

There are plans for an English-language version of the app in Hong Kong, Louie said. He also gave the assurance that FoodSwitch would not collect or store personal information, and was “not a project that assesses the amount of nutrients a person consumes”.

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A spokesman for the city’s Food and Health Bureau said it launched a programme last year to get more manufacturers to produce healthier products with less or no salt and sugar, and use these labels accordingly.

“That said, we stand ready to explore how we may leverage on the FoodSwitch app to achieve the common objective of helping Hong Kong people reduce their salt and sugar intake,” the spokesman said.