Thursday, February 23, 2012

Do the Products in Your Pantry Make the Grade? Try Fooducate.

I did some research this morning. In my fridge and pantry. With my iPhone.

There are a ton of food and nutrition apps out there and I have to admit that I have not tried them all. One of my colleagues recently told me about Fooducate. Since I love giving my clients more resources, and it was free, I thought I’d evaluate it. 

It was actually pretty fun. If I didn’t have to get to work on time, I could’ve spent all morning scanning every food in my house! It's very simple to use: You search for a food in the Fooducate database by scanning the barcode with your phone and the app gives the product a grade. Just like in school, a product will get an A, B, C, etc. Along with the grade, you get information about why the product was rated the way it was. Processing? Whole grains? Additives? The app will point out the benefits and flaws. 

I liked how comprehensive the database was. It had many typical brand name products as well as products made by Trader Joes. The only items I couldn’t locate were Schnucks store brand (St. Louis chain grocer), but I could search by hand for similar products (and you have the option of entering the product information to send to the creators to have it added to the database). It will also store the products you’ve searched for in a list, so you don’t have to search all over again if you want to re-read the details.

I do have, however, a pretty big problem with the grading system. You might think this would be a turn-off completely, but keep reading. Here are some of the products I scanned, which as a dietitian, I would deem very healthy. In other words, I would have given them all As. But here’s what Fooducate gave them:

Plain, quick-cooking oatmeal: B+ (what?!)
Skim milk: A- (why not an A+?)
Natural, unsalted peanut butter: A- 
Whole wheat spaghetti: A-
Apples: A- or B+ (unbelievable)
Lettuce: A- or B+ (again; unbelievable)

It was really hard to get an A. Too hard. Granted, everything we eat will not be given an A grade; and that’s okay. But based on my assessment of the healthy foods above, I think this is majorly disappointing and frustrating. If I find it frustrating (when I know the right answer) how will consumers feel? Probably like it’s too hard to find anything that’s good for you. I already hear that concern often enough.

That said, the “extra” information that Fooducate gives you about the product’s grade is very helpful. I found tips like:

“This product is minimally processed.”
“Multigrain is NOT necessarily whole grain.”
“Salty! Has over 20% of the daily max.”

I thought these tips were terrific guidance to help the user learn about selecting healthy foods and to steer them to other, healthier products, if needed.

All in all, this is a neat resource. I think the “tips” are enough to warrant downloading the app (the free version, at least). But–consumers still should have some foundational diet knowledge before using it! Although we should all know that fruits and vegetables are healthy for us, I’m met with misconceptions every day. Many people think they shouldn’t eat certain fruits and/or vegetables for one reason or another (ie. sugar content, pesticides) and the grading system could definitely cause more confusion. By the way, any fruit or vegetable is good for you, especially if it’s fresh.

If you choose to download the app, great. It’s a cool learning tool. But meet with your Dietitian first!

Photo credit: Supermarket by Ambro