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Anybody remember that commercial Chase was running about a year ago, a newly married couple on top of the bed in their honeymoon suite – she’s still in her wedding dress, he’s in his tux – blissfully greet the beginning of their married life by insta-depositing their gift checks to their bank account through their iPhone’s scanner? No irony anywhere in sight. ‘Twas disturbing on so many levels, I wouldn’t know where to start spuming criticism about the message on that one. But I have an iPhone now, am still in the honeymoon phase with it myself, and am here to tell you that I’ve found an app that lets you use your smart phone’s scanner for fun and profit (the life’s richness kind, not the $$$ kind).

Fooducate is a free app providing a resource for people who want to make healthier choices at the supermarket. A database of products is stored with grades and information to explain what some of the more obscure or controversial ingredients on the label mean and why that throws a red flag on the item. You can access Fooducate on your smart phone (Apple or Android) or on the Internet. Because it lets you use the scanner quite easily, you can scan in the bar code of a product you are contemplating in the store and it will give you its info, including a grade for that product, and options for comparing with other like products.

sample scans from the Fooducate site

It allows you to be very interactive on the site as well: you can comment on products; there are frequent prompts to e-mail the fooducate people with any questions; and if you happen to scan a product they don’t have in their database already, they’ll ask you to type in the name of the product and hit a send button on the auto-email so they can add it in. (I’ve done this twice now, more fun with scanners!) The interface is easy to use, and I’ve found their blog section to have really useful general nutrition articles and information about food ‘current events’ or ‘travesties,’ or however you would categorize stories about pink slime et al. Another good thing, they’ve included smaller retail stores and not just the major grocery chains. You’ll find entries for a lot of products under the Trader Joe’s brand.

About the grading system, the grades are somewhat generic around food groups themselves, not on a scale of what is the best bag of frozen steak fries commercially available. Fruits and veggies are going to get A grades and chocolate syrups are going to get a D+, most likely. Here is how Fooducate explains the basis of their grading system:

Our grading algorithms have been developed by nutrition professors and dietitians. They are based on the concept of nutrient density of foods. The more nutrient dense a food is, the better it is for you. We take into account the nutrition facts panel, the ingredients listed, and the product category. For a more detailed explanation, please read our blog post on this subject

Basic Features:

Product Information, searchable by scan or by typing in product name
Browse Products Feature by category
Add Items to Shopping List
History, it remembers your recent scans
Feedback options
Sharing options
Daily Tips
Resource Blog

It took me a few sessions to find the browse by category mode (it’s a dark button on the bottom of the find product screen, you have to select ‘browse’ instead of ‘find’). This mode lets you see things in top rating or grade order – which you cannot do by typing a request to search for products with a certain grade in the input field.

So even if you’re not up for scanning items in the aisle of your grocery store, you might enjoy a leisurely look at some of the products in your fridge or cabinet. That’s kind of how I’ve done it, so far. Plus the interface is well designed so it does not waste your time with the need to fiddle. Free and easy resources! It’s hard to argue with that, right? And unlike some other free food apps (ahem, Mark Bittman) it is not an empty shell pushing you to pay for their better, real version. If you want to pursue some other ways of making your smart phone your carry-along nutritionist, here is a link to The Cayenne Room that provides a list of some other food apps to explore.