Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Must-have iPhone health food app

My grandmother took me and my mom to a ropa once on the Texas/Mexico border. What is a ropa? Picture a warehouse and a mountain of used clothes stretching up to the ceiling. We had to literally climb the mountain digging deeper and deeper into the pile as we went along. If you could fit it in a paper grocery bag then you could take it home for mere pennies. As if in evidence that sorting through all this trash was worth it, my grandmother insisted that my grandfather was sporting a $200 cashmere sweater found in just such a pile. This is my analogy for the iTunes app store. The sheer number of apps is overwhelming, and a lot of it's garbage, even if it's free or next to free. But once you've found an app that works for you, it all seems worthwhile, or at least bearable.

And here's my food app pick: It's called Fooducate. Here's how it works. As you're grocery shopping you can pick up an item, open the Fooducate program and scan the item's barcode. If the product is in their database you'll get a rating, A+ through D. (I'm assuming the lowest rating is D. I have yet to find a product that's rated lower than a C-.) The review will also give you a couple of messages stating why the food got the rating, such as:
  • Contains controversial artificial colors
  • Salty! Over 25% of the daily max
  • Made with refined flours, not whole grain
There's an "Alternatives" tab with five better options and a very helpful "Compare" tab that allows you to scan two similar items and see which is the better of the two.

The Good: This app helps cut down on the time spent comparing incomprehensible ingredient lists, nutritional charts and tricky product labels. You might make up for that time however by scanning everything you put your hands on. I get a little scan happy in the privacy of my own pantry. Shhh. Love, love, love the "Compare" program. I know hotdogs aren't good for us but they're one of the only meat products the kids will eat. So even if Fooducate gives every death-dog (as someone once called them) a bad grade I can still chose the 'healthiest' option. Yes, I've tried a couple versions of the veggie dogs. Just gross people. I would say around 85-percent of the items I scan are in the database. Most store brands are absent with the exception of Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Target and Trader Joe's.

The annoying: I can't help but bait this app. Scan a Lindt chocolate bar if you want to see Fooducate get worked up. He he he. This app can be a bit like having an annoying nutritionist in your grocery cart instead of a screaming toddler. I once scanned juice boxes and the alternative I was given was water. No duh. And granola bars' alternative? An apple. If you're looking for a snack with a rating over a C-, skip the entire chip aisle, including pretzels, baked and any organic, whole-veggie alternative. Also frustrating is the problem of no service inside some of these giant grocery stores. I'm actually thinking of switching where I shop just because I can't get this app to work anywhere but in the produce aisle--and who needs it there?!

Overall: I sometimes think Fooducate should have the disclaimer "Brought to you by Whole Foods" because of the number of times the brand's products show up under "Alternatives." It makes this app less practical but it's not surprising that the best choices are at health-food stores. Whether or not you can afford those alternatives, they're available in your area or your kids will touch them with a ten-foot pole is another story. The "Compare" feature makes it indispensable. I use it any time I'm shopping, and all joking aside I do find I scan less and less each trip. Now I've become familiar with the top two or three choices in each category, and that's pretty priceless. Except that it is priceless. Literally. This app is FREE.

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