Smarter Living: Shopping Wise

iphone

Photo: Paul McRandle

Label Lookup (free)

You are in a store, considering what to buy and you see a claim on a product -- maybe a carton says the eggs are "Animal Welfare Approved." What's it mean? Is it backed up by good standards? Can you trust it? Check it out on NRDC's Label Lookup  website with a specialized "Food" section or in our updated iPhone app, available here. We've researched roughly 200 different claims that can be found on product labels and gathered what we learned into this tool so that you can make informed product choices. We've even rated the claims, using a zero-to-four "leaf rating" scheme (four leaves is the highest rating).

Locavore ($2.99)

Locavore is a bit more expensive than the average iPhone application, but the promise of tracking in-season food, the use of NRDC ’s and Local Harvest’s excellent databases, and the program's ability to detect where you are is enticing.  In some ways, Locavore delivers. The in-season list of produce not only shows you what’s available in your area, but lists items by how little time remains before they go out season. For instance, when I tested it there were only two more weeks left in the strawberry-growing season in New York State—good to know if you want to stock up on and freeze fresh puréed strawbs. There’s also a coming-attractions list of fruit and vegetables soon to be in season, which will literally whet your appetite. And you can browse by food item, the main interest of which is seeing where things like broad beans or cardoons are growing (and if you don’t know what cardoons are, Locavore provides a link to a Wikipedia entry as well).

Locavore, however, is lacking some important items provided by cheaper apps, the most obvious of which is a shopping list.  Furthermore, it provides only fruit and vegetable listings. If you want to find local fish, meat or milk, you’re out of luck. It will show you which markets are nearby, but you can’t search for markets in other locales. And although I live just seven miles from Manhattan’s biggest farmers’ market by far, at Union Square, that listing doesn’t show up among the 26 greenmarkets that appear for my area (which includes some farther away). More annoying still, it lists all markets in an area regardless of whether they are open or not.

$2.99 isn’t much, but to be really worthwhile, this app needs to do more work itself and rely less on links to external databases.

Farm Fresh NYC ($2.99)

Produced by Thinkenhaus, Farm Fresh NYC is much more local and a better value than Locavore if you happen to live in one of New York City’s five boroughs. It provides in-season listings of produce as well as seafood, but like Locavore it skips meat and dairy. Within its seafood listings, Farm Fresh NYC includes warnings for high mercury in swordfish and tilefish but not in tuna, and it notes the overfishing of flounder and cod but not monkfish. These inconsistencies make it a not terribly reliable guide for either health or environmental concerns.

That said, Farm Fresh does provide a grocery list as well as a list for items you are waiting to arrive in season.  Its farmers' market directory covers markets in every borough, listing them by neighborhood, and it will drop a pin in a Google Map to show you where the market is. Strangely for a product that lists seafood, it does not give listings of fishmongers in the city.

As useful as it is, it’s a shame Farm Fresh covers only New York City now, but Thinkenhaus promises upcoming versions for San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New Orleans.

iLocavore (free)

Produced by Oh My Brain, iLocavore is free, and that’s just as well. Providing national listings without taking advantage of the iPhone’s geolocation abilities, iLocavore forces users to drill deep down into its menu system. It took four steps to get from Products & Producers to Fruit & Vegetables, and then I was confronted by a random list of items ranging from A Perfect Pair (available in Napa, California) to the Winter Green Farm in Noti, Oregon. Lacking a search tool, iLocavore makes finding produce in your area a fruitless venture. However, it does list 17 Dazbog Coffee Company locations in Denver, Colorado—each one listed individually on the Coffee Shops page. Unfortunately for a local food app, this one drowns in its own information, proving itself about equally useless no matter where you might be.

Good Guide (free)

Years in the making, the Good Guide is the brainchild of a Berkeley professor of environmental and labor policy. The focus of the guide is its rating system, which evaluates over 70,000 products according to health, environmental and fair labor criteria, giving them all scores ranging from 0 (worst) to 10 (best). Unfortunately, the rating system isn’t complete yet for many food items, so, for example, environmental and labor data aren’t included for fruit.  This means that organic nectarines score higher (at 10) than fresh conventional nectarines (8.4), but fair trade bananas and coffee aren’t even listed. The search function works well, but the huge number of products makes it tedious to track down items while you’re in the store elbowing your way among other shoppers. Furthermore, because the Good Guide is so specific in selecting individual products (it has separate listings for Seventh Generation’s grapefruit and lemon dishwasher gels), there are a large number of items for which you won’t find any listings. All in all, this app is more useful for browsing through at home than for grabbing quick appraisals on the fly.

Unique among these apps, Good Guide lets you create a user profile where you can store lists of favorite products and products to avoid. However, it provides no local information or mapping, which means you're on your own when hunting down the best-rated items. And though there are bar code scanner programs out available for the iPhone, none sync up yet with Good Guide’s databases. But you can forgive these weaknesses in a free app and hope for improvements to come.

Whole Foods Markets (free)

If you’re a fan of Whole Foods Markets, the company has created its own recipe app that allows you to find foods by diet type (low-sodium, gluten-free, sugar-conscious, etc.), the kind of meal you’re planning (quick and easy, budget, entertaining, etc.) and the course. It’s handy to be able to look up foods for these specialty diets, but Epicurious and other recipe apps handle similar sorts of information. Still, many of the recipes—such as homemade peach-mango frozen pops—look appetizing and can be saved to a favorites list. And the branding isn’t too obtrusive (though the application does map all of the Whole Foods stores in your area), so this app has its uses.

Shopper ($.99)

The point behind Shopper is to create shopping lists for different stores, allowing you to keep track of what you need and how much you are likely to spend at each stop. Unlike most of the other apps here, this is one you can use at the store just like a shopping list. However, the user has to be willing do some data entry via the iPhone touch screen—not the quickest way to note that bananas cost 89 cents per pound (and prices will change of course). That said, Shopper is very simple to navigate, and because it can be so easily customized it will be useful for the varied needs of most consumers. Not surprisingly, it’s quite popular.

last revised 8/23/2011

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