For all the effort the food industry has put into making nutrition labeling transparent and easier to understand, consumer media might still be the final arbiter of what shoppers rely on in making food purchases.
So far this year alone, dozens of new customized applications, or “apps,” have been introduced that not only interpret multi-syllabic ingredients on the Nutrition Facts panel, they can now pinpoint the in-store location of specific products.
The apps are primarily the realm of versatile smartphones like the iPhone and Droid, with their higher degree of technology. Just snapping a photo of a product generates a critique of the ingredients list, or a warning about unhealthy additives. Shoppers can also receive customized results that highlight ingredients of concern, like allergens or gluten.
Many programs aim for complete transparency. One of them, GoodGuide, provides a rundown of everything from a product's ingredients to background on any third-party certifications.
“Consumers want to know what they want to know,” said Dara O'Rourke, founder and chief sustainability officer of GoodGuide, which has more than 400,000 mobile users.
Retailers like to market the health attributes of their products, and many have invested in nutrition labeling systems like NuVal and Guiding Stars, which boil everything down into one single rating. But as the apps become more sophisticated and personalized, shoppers are opting out of the retailer models, said O'Rourke.
Some supermarkets are adjusting. Whole Foods recently released a “Missions” app that poses nutritional challenges for users to complete in stores. Another app maker, FoodEssentials, says it's partnered with a “leading East Coast retailer” on a program that will be available this fall.