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Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014
Health & Fitness

ShopWell app helps you pick groceries based on health goals


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Food labels are such a mess the government is redesigning them. Ingredient lists are so confusing you need a doctorate in food science to decipher them. A shopper could spend hours in a grocery store squinting at, calculating, comparing and contrasting, and still not get it right. The ShopWell app is designed to help by allowing consumers to scan food labels and receive comprehensible, personalized information.

Here’s how it works. Register for ShopWell, and note your age and gender. Add your goals (General health? Or are you fighting osteoporosis? Do you have diabetes?). Then, note what you want in your diet, such as protein or iron, and what you want to minimize (added sugar, say). Add your allergies and intolerances, and start scanning.

ShopWell algorithms, which its parent company says were developed with input from dietitians, Stanford University statisticians and guidelines from the Institute of Medicine (the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences), will crunch the numbers, crosscheck the preferences and spit out a simple color-coded ranking: green for a food that is good for you, yellow for foods you can enjoy in moderation and red for foods you should avoid. It also will suggest foods that might be a better fit.

The results are easily deciphered, and the interface is clean because it’s not cluttered with ads. Instead, ShopWell makes money by selling data to supermarkets. Its database contains 350,000 products, the app has been downloaded 1.3 million times, and the company claims a scan every two seconds “in stores as diverse as Walmart, Whole Foods and 7-Eleven,” in the words of marketing manager James Allgood.

One of the first items I scanned was So Delicious Coconut Milk Creamer, which I buy because I’m lactose intolerant. Turns out it’s only a medium match for me — because of its 1 gram per serving of added sugar. I’m not sure I’ll give it up. But I did ask the app to watch for added sugar, and it’s doing its job.

One drawback to ShopWell is that the scanner often doesn’t work for items from Costco or Trader Joe’s. (I’m told this is because of wholesale bundling or proprietary information.) Some user reviews say that it doesn’t cover enough allergies.

Finally, users have to be content with being part of a vigorously data-mined database, aggregated and anonymized as it may be. But some may conclude that helping stores decide which products to stock is worth gaining information about what is in those products.

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