Are Tag Scanning Apps Useful For Healthy Eating?

Currently we are in a paradoxical situation: despite the fact that every day we have access to more information, the pathologies related to the way we eat do not stop increasing.

A fact to illustrate: if we do a Google search on the concept of “healthy diet” we will find almost 100 million results, but according to data from the WHO (2020), since 1975 obesity has almost tripled worldwide. In 2016, 13% of the adult population was considered obese. And the figure skyrockets if we also consider overweight people.

This implies that, today, it is more necessary than ever to pay attention to the effect that eating has on health. The biggest challenge for nutrition professionals is to help the population decide what to put on the plate.


Looking for labeling translators

It must be admitted that the population is increasingly aware of the need to inquire about the characteristics of the food they eat. What is different is that you are prepared to understand or interpret what you read. And we are not just talking about understanding the average nutrient analysis table, but also knowing how to interpret this information with which the ingredients list provides, as well as understanding the technicalities and acronyms that appear.

As a consequence, most of the time it is not easy to decipher the contents of food labels. To facilitate this task, in some countries, simpler logo options or simplified nutritional labels can be found on packaging, which have been implemented within the framework of public health policies.

Among these initiatives, Nutri-score stands out, a food evaluation system that evaluates them based on their composition and classifies them into five categories according to their nutritional quality (A, B, C, D and E), represented in the form of a chain of 5 colored circles ranging from dark green (best nutritional quality) to red (worst nutritional quality).

Nutri-Score Scale.
              Author provided

This system is already a reality in countries like France and Belgium. In Spain, for the moment, it is voluntary, but a campaign is underway to ask the European Commission for its mandatory presence in all member states. It has been created with a dual purpose: to help the consumer select healthier foods at the time of purchase and to stimulate the food industry to improve the nutritional profile of the foods it produces, so that they obtain a better classification.

Although with some limitations, Nutri-score has scientific accreditation that supports its use. If it is launched, there is no doubt that its implementation must be accompanied by an educational campaign aimed at the population so that this tool is as useful as possible, just as it was done in France.

Make the purchase in «scanner mode»

Another possibility available recently is the applications that, by scanning the barcode on a food container, help us classify it according to different scales. Analyzing their composition, they allow identifying the “best” or “least bad” of each category.

There is a wide variety of these applications that use different criteria. In some, a score is only offered based on the nutritional note of the Nutri-score or the degree of food processing. Others mix different criteria, such as the Nutri-score nutritional note, whether or not additives are present or whether the product has an “eco” label.

According to a recent study prepared by the Organization of Consumers and Users (OCU), the three most popular applications of this type in our country are El CoCo, Yuka and MyRealFood. They all have thousands of users and their use has become popular in a very short time.

Although today it is not yet possible to specify the effect of the use of these tools on future health, since we lack scientific evidence to assess the results, we can say that in general they are good tools that can help make a purchase healthier.

Another important advantage is that they can favor the food industry to improve the nutritional composition of their products in order to avoid misclassification. However, on their own they cannot have the same effectiveness if previously the consumer is not clear on what the pattern of healthy eating must be.

More fresh and less packaged products

Another drawback that we must take into account is that these applications work for packaged foods. But, what about fresh foods that must abound in healthy eating? Fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish do not have a barcode. That implies that the apps help us classify only the so-called processed and ultra-processed foods, which should be a minority in a balanced diet.

Why? In essence because the elaboration of these products implies a greater transformation of the raw material. On the one hand, this tends to decrease the nutritional quality of the food. On the other, it requires the addition of other ingredients such as sugars, fats, salt, flavorings, enzymes or additives (sweeteners, preservatives or antioxidants).

Currently the Spanish Community Nutrition Society (SENC) recommends that optional, occasional and moderate consumption of processed and ultra-processed be made. They are based on that a diet based on the convenience or ease of use offered by these foods will displace the consumption of other fresh or poorly processed foods, which although they require longer preparation times are more recommended for their interesting nutritional characteristics. And that this practice carries an increased risk of being overweight or obese and other associated pathologies such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease or dyslipidemia.

Hence the importance of teaching society to make correct use of food within a healthy eating pattern such as the Mediterranean Diet, promoting a diet based on local foods, with seasonal and local products. Products that, most of the time, do not have a barcode.