Making Europe digitally fit

Scanning food in the supermarket can help shoppers understand exactly what they are eating. [wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report ‘Working’ toward healthy eating.

Time is at a premium and many people simply don’t have enough of it to shop, cook and eat healthily. How can new technologies induce change in the eating habits of workers?

It can be hard to make the right food choices in these hectic times. New technologies seem to make life move so much faster.

But these same technologies that can make meals so rushed could also help people make healthier food choices – if they’re used in the right way. The subject is being explored at a healthy eating summit on 19 October in the European Parliament. How can digital tools encourage healthy eating habits and support restaurants in adapting their food offer?

The European Union has been funding a number of projects that are developing digital tools to help people make healthier food choices. Some are eHealth (on a computer) and mHealth (on a mobile) projects that help people manage their calorie intake or other elements like fat or salt.

Other projects are innovating in the health and care system and the way it works. This includes projects that are related to interoperability – the ability of systems and organisations to work together.

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Food scanning

One project that has received funding from the EU’s Horizon2020 programme is Spectral Engines. The Finnish start-up is making a portable device that can detect the ingredients and substances in food. It’s so portable that one can use it in the shop, to see if food matches the ingredients listed. This could be particularly helpful for people with allergies.

Started in 2014, the company won the Commission’s Food Scanner Horizon prize this year, receiving an €800,000 funding boost.

Food manufacturers have been working with these new technologies to make sure that their packaging is compatible. Florence Ranson of industry association FoodDrinkEurope says there are many possibilities in this area.

“With apps and online devices, it is quite easy for consumers to keep track of what they are eating and to monitor their daily intakes, as well as track their exercise levels,” she says. “Keeping a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle is therefore easier.”

“There is also more and more information available about products through barcodes which can be scanned and help consumers answer questions they may still have about the product they want to buy, but all the basic nutritional information is on the label anyway.”

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Big data

Big data is also providing new opportunities to harness information about consumer behaviour and use it to better understand consumption patterns.

Data about peoples’ preferences, and what they are actually buying, is already being used to adjust ingredients.

IBM researchers recently created a computer programme that can generate original recipes based on user preferences. A user can set general parameters about what they want, which may be a particular ingredient, a geographic origin, or a health outcome.

The computer then sorts through a treasure trove of big data to make a recipe. That data includes the molecules and chemical compounds in each ingredient, how those ingredients interact with each other, and what flavours result.

With such technology, we could be coming to a situation where robot chefs at restaurants can make meals based on the health outcome desires of customers.

McDonald’s has also been looking into how to harness big data, at this point mostly for efficiency purposes. They are looking for trends in consumer demand and trying to match them.

Now that food voucher programmes in the EU have gone digital, there are new possibilities there as well. The vouchers now come on an electronic card rather than on paper, and that card could track trends in food purchasing behaviour, if customers so desire. Government authorities could then see how adjustments could be made to encourage the healthiest food choices.

Technological advances have opened up a new world of possibilities for healthy eating. The question is whether they can be harnessed for these productive outcomes, or whether new apps will just be used to find the nearest kebab shop.

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