For this week’s #MomBoss Monday, I am featuring a new friend who I am completely smitten with, Elizabeth Dunford –A Postdoctoral Researcher in Public Health Nutrition and new mother to 3-month-old Harvey. Aside from sharing a bond over both being new mothers to boys, I was immediately drawn to her matter-of-fact, sarcastic sense of humor, and her brain (you’ll find out soon enough what I mean.)
The Australian-native has led an impressive career as a nutrition researcher and her influence on the food industry paired with her passion to improve population health is just one of the reason’s I’m naming her this week’s #MomBoss Monday. You can read her complete (and impressive) bio here, but Elizabeth has an undergraduate degree in Human Nutrition, a Masters degree in Public Health, and a PhD in Public Health from The University of Sydney. In her short research career she has published more than 50 academic papers and in 2014 she was awarded the World Obesity Federation’s New Investigator Award for her work in developing the FoodSwitch smartphone application. In my interview with Elizabeth, you can read more about how and why she got into nutrition research, the work behind the popular FoodSwitch app, and her thoughts on motherhood and leading a healthy lifestyle. Another reason I consider her a #MomBoss?…being a new mama has just further fueled her passion for the work she does, as she hopes to help mothers make better food choices that will undoubtedly affect the food habits of generations to come.
Natalie: Tell us a little bit about your career and how you got into nutrition research.
Elizabeth: “When I finished my undergraduate nutrition degree, I realized that my degree had, in a sense, been quite limiting and had focused on improving the nutrition of individuals. However, my passion had always been to try and influence nutrition on a larger scale, and so it prompted me to enroll in a Masters degree in Public Health (and after that a PhD in Public Health Nutrition) to start learning the skills to influence nutrition policy. My end goal was always to get a job researching what we can to improve nutrition not only for individuals, but for entire populations. I was lucky enough to get a job at The George Institute which is an amazing company that does research into many different chronic diseases, including nutrition and obesity-related diseases. I have now worked there for 10 years and I love being a nutrition researcher!”
Natalie: Let’s talk about the brilliant app you launched in Australia, FoodSwitch. How did the idea for FoodSwitch come about?
Elizabeth: “During my PhD, I had developed a database that captured the nutrition information (e.g. levels of sugars, fats, sodium etc) for every packaged food available in Australian supermarkets. One day, my boss and I were sitting around brainstorming what we could do with all that data, and we thought it would be a bit of fun to develop an app that consumers could use to scan the barcodes of packaged foods in the supermarket when grocery shopping and not only be told how healthy that product is, but also help them to “switch” to healthier brands. So, we put together a proposal and went with it to Bupa (an Australian health insurance company) and asked them for some startup money, which they gave us! So, we went ahead developing FoodSwitch. We launched the app in January 2012, and in all honesty, we thought that the app wold be a bit of a short term “gimmick” and would maybe annoy some big food companies enough (especially those that sell mainly unhealthy products). BUT we were wrong! Not only was the app an instant success, it is STILL a popular app today! And due to its success we have launched the app in New Zealand, the UK, South Africa, China, India, Hong Kong and now the USA! In the first 48hrs after we launched the app, we had 24,000 downloads, and to date we have more than 1 million downloads.”
Natalie: How is FoodSwitch best leveraged?
Elizabeth: “Anyone who is interested in healthy eating, parents who are looking for healthier options of their children’s favorite foods, and even the food companies themselves can use FoodSwitch. To use FoodSwitch, first the user chooses which type of label they would like to see (either a “traffic light” style label which uses Red, Amber and Green to show whether foods are high, medium or low in total fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt; or alternatively a “Health Star Rating” label which rates each food in half star increments from 0.5 to 5.0 stars). Next, they simply scan the barcode of the food they want to know about and the app will show them the food’s rating, and will also show them a list of healthier brands of very similar products they might like to “switch” to. For example, if a user scans a loaf of white bread, the app will offer them healthier white bread options. The app also has a “Help Us Out’ function where users can send us photos of items that are missing from our database. We will then put that information into the app so that in future the items will be there when they scan it. In addition, but sending us photos of missing items, users help us build a bigger database which we then use for research to find out which foods and food companies we need to target to get them to make their foods healthier. So users are helping make their food supply healthier!”
Natalie: What is the next step for FoodSwitch here in the U.S.?
Elizabeth: “FoodSwitch USA is currently available in the Apple and Google Play stores, however, it is still in its infancy! The USA is very unique in that it has the largest number of packaged food products in the world. Yes, even more than China and India! At any one time, there could be more than 500,000 unique packaged food items for sale in the USA, and new products are constantly being made, and many products also being discontinued. Because of that, it is very difficult for our app to have information on every single food item. So right now we are encouraging people who want to use FoodSwitch to download the app and send us photos of as many missing items as possible so that later this year we can relaunch the app with a bigger database for its users to help make healthier food choices.”
Natalie: What do you find to be some of the biggest differences between food in America vs. Australia?
Elizabeth: “I always knew through my research that the USA had some of the least healthy packaged food products in the Western world. However, I was not prepared for just HOW unhealthy some of the products in the USA are! In particular, I found it fascinating (and disturbing) that so many packaged food products here in America contain high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener. In Australia, less than 1% of products contain hugh fructose corn syrup, yet in America it is one of the top 5 used forms of sugar. Scarily, to me, it is even found in bread! And we know from the database that powers FoodSwitch that no other country uses high fructose corn syrup in bread. In fact, most countries do not even put sugar in bread to begin with!”
Natalie: How has motherhood changed your outlook on your career?
Elizabeth: “So far, with a 3-month-old baby, my career outlook for now has certainly changed! Gone are the days of working 10hrs a day behind a desk. That being said, I am very lucky in that my career is very data-based, and so I am able to work from anywhere in the world, which is so wonderful when I’m taking care of my beautiful baby boy. I am able to make my own work hours, and at this stage in my career, I am lucky enough to be able to pick and choose the projects I work on as well. Looking ahead though, I now am even more convinced of how important it is for my research to continue as I am bringing a child up in a country with a food supply dominated by fast foods and packaged processed supermarket foods. I will continue my research monitoring the healthiness of the American (and global) packaged food supply and advocating for big food companies to improve the healthiness of the products they sell. Although in an ideal world there would be no unhealthy processed foods, unfortunately that is not the world we live in, and instead it is my hope that we can help improve the healthiness of the products that ARE out there.”
Natalie: What advice do you have for a mom trying to make healthy food choices for herself and her family?
Elizabeth: “We are lucky enough to live in a digital world with a wealth of information at our fingertips. My advice for moms trying to make healthy food choices for herself and her family is this – do what you can to make the right choices, but never beat yourself up for not being able to get it right 100% of the time. I believe in everything in moderation. Kids should still be able to enjoy candy and snack foods now and then (and parents a glass or two of wine!). What is most important is ensuring that the majority of the foods you buy are wholefoods such as fresh fruit and vegetables (even frozen ones if needed), fresh produce, whole grains, nuts/seeds and low fat dairy (except for children under 2 years who should consume whole milk). Use all the tools you can to make healthy choices when buying packaged processed foods. Apps like FoodSwitch can help, and so can following simple rules like checking the nutrition fats panel and the ingredients list (no high fructose corn syrup!).
Natalie: What is your personal philosophy on living a healthy lifestyle?
Elizabeth: “Everything in moderation! Life is meant to be enjoyed – and a happy life involves good food.”