Don't look now, but that NutriGrain bar you're scarfing down for breakfast is only a C+ choice when it comes to your health.
So says Fooducate, a mobile app that 's designed to be, in Founder-CEO Hemi Weingarten's words, a "bullshit detector for marketing messages" on packaged foods. And it's not alone: smartphone-toting consumers are also flocking to apps such as MyFoodWatch, AllergyEats and Don't Eat That to parse what's healthful and what's not.
The new mobile tools are designed to bring a sense of transparency to store aisles, aiding in healthy purchase decisions. And they're surprisingly well penetrated: Of U.S. smartphone owners -- now about half the mobile-phone-toting population -- 44% have a health-related app, according to a January ComScore survey. Seventeen million people accessed health information on their phone in late 2011, up 125% from the year prior.
"Consumers find out about buzz words like 'high-fructose corn syrup' and 'processed meats' and know there can be misleading marketing angles," said Joseph Gonzales, staff dietician for nutrition education and research group the Cancer Project.
With Fooducate, users scan a product barcode, and an algorithm developed with dietitions crunches the ingredient list and nutrition facts and spits out a letter grade. The general rule of thumb: the less processed the food, with fewer fillers or additives, the higher the grade. The app calls out what's affecting that grade -- for example: Kellogg's NutriGrain Mixed Berry cereal bars aren't 100% whole grain and contain artificial flavors.
But as Fooducate looks to capitalize on its growing user base and court marketers to advertise, it'll have to walk the same sacred line between editorial integrity and advertising interest that publishers have for decades. What if a paying advertiser doesn't like what you're saying about them?
"We've had conversations [with advertisers] that have said: 'We'd love to work with you, but you have to give us higher grades,'" said Mr. Weingarten. "So they don't work with us. Those advertisers who think they'll do well on Fooducate will advertise, others won't."
Fooducate first launched its ad products early this year and has, so far, worked with brands such as Larabar and Chobani Greek yogurt, as well as an early partner that may raise some eyebrows: a Trix-branded yogurt from General Mills.
When Fooducate users scanned kids' snacks such as Goldfish crackers or string cheese, they saw an ad indicating that General Mills' Yoplait Trix yogurt for kids is now all-natural. The campaign on Fooducate followed the yogurt's reformulation -- it no longer contains artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners or high-fructose corn syrup, according to General Mills. As a result, Yoplait Trix yogurt gets a B on Fooducate, whereas the cereal gets a C-.
After being released for iPhone in January 2011 and for Android phones a few months later, Fooducate has been downloaded millions of times and, every week, about 500,000 people use the app or its corresponding website, Mr. Weingarten reported. Seventy-five percent of users are female, and 35% have at least one child living at home. A recent survey of 15,000 Fooducate users found that 80% had selected a healthier alternative at least once after using the app; 50% said the app caused them to try a product for the first time.
"There are 60,000 items in an average grocery store, and it takes a lot of time to compare nutrition panels," said Lynne Robertson, president-CEO of TBWA's retail agency Fame . "Shoppers are being bombarded with a lot of information."
Fame helped develop grocery retailer SuperValu's label system for 800 stores, which finds color-coded tags on shelves to call out products with health benefits such as whole grains, vitamins and low sodium.
And consumers aren't making decisions until they're in the store, in many cases. Larabar, whose snacks score B- or C+, was attracted to Fooducate because of the way customers shop.
"In the bar category, much of the [purchase] decision is made in the store," said Larabar Marketing Manager Erica Younkin. "If we can be there with shoppers at the shelf, that makes sense for us." Larabar distributed coupons through Fooducate and found that clicks were higher in the app than online.