Free app that scans bar codes and delivers more detailed nutritional information than food labels offer could help Americans follow new dietary guidelines more closely.
With more than 15 years experience testing hardware (and being obsessed with it), Crave freelance writer Matt Hickey can tell the good gadgets from the great. He also has a keen eye for future technology trends. Matt has blogged for publications including TechCrunch, CrunchGear, and most recently, Gizmodo. Matt is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CBS Interactive. E-mail Matt.
The departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services yesterday announced new dietary guidelines for Americans that include eating less sugar, fat, and salt--no surprises there. But following such recommendations can be hard; many products labeled low in fat or high in fiber may also be brimming with sodium or additives. Nutritional labels don't always tell people what they need to know.
That's where Fooducate, a new iPhone app (Android version is "in the oven," the makers say) comes in. It uses the iPhone's camera to scan the bar codes on 200,000 food products in supermarkets and convenience stores.
It then brings up nutritional info--and not just the stuff required on the label. It also displays information about high-fructose corn syrup, food coloring, controversial additives like butylated hydroxytoluene, and healthier alternatives (instead of Super Sugar Choco Nugs, perhaps Grape Nuts?). The app's Web site uses as an example Apple Jacks cereal. It gets a D+ rating, which surprised me (something with fruit in the title must be good for you, right?!).
I wanted to try the app out, so I went to the kitchen of The Unicorn, a restaurant and bar in Seattle that yesterday served as my office. The first thing I spotted was a box of Twinkies, a favorite food from childhood that I sadly haven't had in years. I try to stay away from junk food and Twinkies are junk food, right?
I scanned the code on the back of the box, and was presented with an aggregate score: C! That means Twinkies are better for you (and your kids) than Apple Jacks. Does that mean I can now have one or two Twinkies a month without destroying my hot bod?
Not really. The app gave me a pretty good breakdown of what's wrong with Twinkies: additives and trans fats among other things. What really got me was the high concentration of high-fructose corn syrup, a substance I've mostly cut out of my diet. Maybe I won't be having a Twinkie after all. Damn.
But the app gave me a few alternatives: bananas, which I love, and a few other sweet cakes that are supposedly healthier for you. Let's face it, though; if you're craving a Twinkie, you're not looking for a healthy snack. None of the alternatives scored above a C+, but then processed, sugar-infused, cream-filled cakes likely wouldn't.
Fooducate was created by Hemi Weingarten, a father of three young children who also writes a blog that decodes labels and educates about the food industry. The app, free in the iTunes App Store, isn't small, so you'll want to find Wi-Fi to download. Will it fulfill its lofty promise to "change the way America eats?" Unlikely. But it's fast, simple, and does what it does well.
And, of course, the app has Facebook and Twitter integration so I can share some of my shopping habits with friends and family. Self-induced guilt is good for a diet, right?