But are today’s apps actually useful to health-conscious consumers? The answer is yes ”“ if you can find ones with viable, factual information. If you can separate the wheat from the chaff. Creating, coding, and developing an app has never been easier ”“ and there’s no FDA regulation of health apps. So many of the diet, ingredient and allergen-monitor apps in the app store use information that’s hard to verify as a consumer. Nearly all of them come with heavy disclaimers of not being liable for inaccurate information or misinformation, whether from manufacturer changes, product labeling, or user-submitted data. It’s not exactly reassuring for a shopping-weary soul.
Modern Farmer took a few for a test drive.
Most apps come with their own barcode and PLU (four or five-digit “Price Lookup Codes,” placed on individual produce used by supermarkets for easier inventory control and check-out) scanners today. Some of the scanners we tried worked, but with mixed results ”“ depending on what’s in the app’s database. While it’s true that foods with a PLU that start with a 9 are organic, according to the USDA, and foods with a PLU that start with an 8 are GE foods, most advocates say that PLUs beginning with an 8 are rare ”“ and still don’t offer much information to the consumer. Plus, PLU labeling is still voluntary, and not regulated by the government. The reality is that those codes are used generally for processing, not for selling. (And the PLU scanners we tried didn’t work, anyways ”“ of the five fruits and veggies we ran the apps on, only one a fruit, an organic Hess avocado.)
Here are the apps we put to the test on our own trip to the grocery store.
Made by: Non-GMO Project
Versions: iPhone only (versions iOS3.1)
Pros: The app is run by the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit that claims to have created the only third-party verification process for GMOs. The group says it has been filing products through its (voluntary) verification standards into a database since 2008. In a disclaimer on the “about” page, the organization notes that the testing isn’t for finished products, but “can be done at any one of the number of places in the production chain… We require rigorous traceability and segregation practices to be followed in order to ensure that the tested ingredients are what get used in the product.” The test must show that the ingredients used are less than 0.9 percent GMO. (Of course, the majority of information about the Non-GMO-Project’s seal is found online, instead or through the app.)
Cons: The app is organized and runs like a websites from the ’90s ”“ clunky and unintuitive. And while the app lists plenty of categories, including pet products, beauty care, and wholesale ingredients, the number of products available to search for is woefully low. You’ll hope that you can click on the names of the products to learn more but, alas, it’s a static feature that appears to be updated infrequently. Clicking on brands is slightly more helpful. In the long (and slow to load) list of brands, you’ll find Amira Organic, Arrowhead Mills, Earth’s Best, Good Earth and even smaller brand names like Brewla (a popsicle company out in Brooklyn).
Made by: Nxtranet
Cost: $4.99 on iPhone, $2.99 on Android
Versions: iPhone iOS5 or Android 2.1
Pros: You can easily check off your unwanted ingredients (gluten, GMOs, artificial sweeteners, peanuts, for instance) or your medical conditions, so that when you search through the (limited) categories of foods, you’ll find green checkmarks or red X’s next to products that fit your health and medical needs. Dreyer’s Ice Cream, for example, gets a big red X because of its corn syrup; the corn syrup ingredient then links to a Wikipedia page explaining why it’s not GMO-free. Even though Stonyfield Farm Frozen Yogurt gets a green checkmark, NxtNutrio still explains why its whey protein concentrate, or monosodium glutamate, can set off health alarms.
Cons: After agreeing to the terms and conditions, you’re taken to a so-so scanner. It didn’t recognize our Lundberg Organic Rice Chips, but the app led us to take images of the product, nutrition label, and ingredients list. Too bad the app crashed each time we tried to take a photo. The app also links to several Wikipedia pages to explain its nutritional facts and science, information we find to be, at best, shaky. While the website says it references its products by “a multitude of scientific sources,” we’re hard-pressed to find those sources.
Made by: ipiit inc.
Versions: iPhone iOS 5.0 or Android 2.2
Pros: Like NxtNutrio, Ipiit has a similar preferences menu to help navigate barcodes and products. (And should your preference not show up, like “corn syrup free,” you have the ability to request it in the next iteration of the app.) Our same rice chips didn’t show up in Ipiit, but the app led us to take the same three photos as NxtNutrio. It then allows you to send the photos as an email from your phone to the Ipiit Food Ambassador support.
Under its sources, it lists the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, Stanford Children’s Health, and a study “‘Gluten-free diet: a comprehensive resource guide. Revised and Expanded Edition‘ ” by Shelley Case. A quick Google search led us to a 2010 article by Case detailing gluten and gluten-free diets. Its GMO information is also from the foundation Just Label It, as well as the Non-GMO Project.
Cons: We wish we could browse products or categories without having to scan a product, and the scanner sometimes ran into server errors.
Made by: Fooducate
Versions: iPhone iOS7 or Android 2.2
Pros: The main objective of Fooducate is weight loss ”“ a pro if that’s your ultimate objective, too. Fooducate takes you through a long list of questions designed to figure out your nutritional needs to help you meet your desired weight loss goal. The Health Tracker helps keep track of what you’ve eaten by a manual search of a database of products, or by a quick scan of a product. When we scanned our rice chips, the app gave them a school grade (B-) with explanations (“Nice!” 100% whole grain,” but “chips and puffs rate low … [because they] generally have little nutritional value for the amount of fat and sodium they carry”). Fooducate says its gradings come from an algorithm taken directly from what’s on the package, ingredient labels and nutrition facts.
Cons: Its one-track weight loss mentality lacks the specificity of the other ingredient and allergen-monitoring apps. With Fooducate Pro you can control carbs, track additional nutrients, and check off all the health conditions and preferences you’d find in NxtNutrio and Ippit (like “heart-healthy” or “vegetarian) for $2 or more per month.
Made by: Ingredient1, inc.
Versions: iPhone iOS7
Pros: The app lets you choose between your preferences, including kosher and paleo (two we hadn’t seen listed yet), allergens, certifications (certified kosher, certified fair trade), and even flavors. Then, it asks you for your “food mood” ”“ sweet or crunchy, for instance ”“ and recommends products to fit your cravings. A listing, like the one for Stonyfield’s Low-Fat Minty Chocolate Chip Frozen Yogurt’s, gives ingredients, potential allergens, certifications (certified kosher, USDA-certified organic), and brand claims (hormone and antibiotic-free). It even gives the “macronutrient ratios” of fat, carbs, sugar, and proteins. (Surprise ”“ there’s a lot of sugar.) When we compared the labels on the bags to the apps, we found them to be accurate. And just to really ride the food trend zeitgeist, you can search by trending foods (we saw a lot of almond flours and smoked salt).
Cons: Beyond some tech bugs (skip the “find it” button ”“ the app recommended we get our Stonyfield fro-yo from a health store only 6,000 miles away and the “store” button is just as useless), the app places an emphasis on partnering with brands. According to the Ingredient1 website, brands must pass a three-step verification process.
Made by: Yotta Mark, Inc.
Versions: iPhone iOS 5 and Android 2.2.3
Pros: Like the other apps, you can also set health goals and limited preferences, like vegan or gluten-intolerance. (Although some are extremely vague, like “general health.”) The app ticks off a list of the nutrients that are “most important in your diet,” and “items to minimize in your diet.” When we scanned our rice chips, it gave us a summary and recommendation, calling it a “medium” match for our diet because of its added sugar. When browsing through a massive list of categories, it will list recommended foods by strongest scores, based on your health needs, and create shopping lists around your “favorite” products.
Cons: Honestly, we couldn’t find much to complain about ShopWell. It had all the bonuses of Fooducate Pro for free.