In the last six months since being gluten-free, I have searched the internet and the app store on my smart phone for the best sources of information. Since being diagnosed with Celiac Disease, I’ve expanded that search to learn as much as possible about the disease as well. Some of the information is, well, not the greatest – either from a functionality standpoint to a credibility standpoint.
So, I was intrigued early last week when my coworker introduced me to the iPhone app ShopWell. He told me it was an app that you could use to scan consumer products to tell you two things: 1.) how beneficial that product is to fit your wellness needs that you have predefined in the app; and (more applicable) 2.) tell you if that product posed a food allergy risk. Needless to say, it sounded like the missing Holy Grail. Those of us with Celiac Disease and/or on a gluten-free diet can probably list off pretty easily our preferred “go-to” places for information regarding where and what we can eat. I had yet to hear of an app that does what my coworker described. Could it really be true? Could there be an app that allows me to scan a product’s bar code, and know instantly if it was not only safe for me to eat, but also a healthy choice based on my personal health goals?(I probably should state at this point that this is an independent review. ShopWell has not reached out to me to do this review, nor am I being paid after this review is posted.)
I won’t bury the lead – it is true. One-hundred-per-cent, completely true. And the best part – it’s a free app in the iPhone App Store. Here’s my experience with ShopWell. (Keep in mind, however, that I’m not able to list or show everything within the app – that would be a lot of photos, and well, would make for a ridiculously long post. For more details, screenshots, FAQs, etc. not discussed below, please visit ShopWell’s site here.)
After download the app and create a log-in, ShopWell asks you to fill out your age & gender, personal goals, what you want in foods, what you don’t want in foods, and what you need to avoid. This helps to create your homepage inside the app. Mine looks like this:
I think that avatar looks a little like me, don’t you? As you can see, my goals include general health and athletic training, but you can also select diabetes, high blood pressure, digestive health, etc. as additional goals. Next, the app asks you what is most important in your diet. I concentrated on the essential minerals and vitamins, as well as low sodium. Then, I eliminated the foods that I didn’t want in my diet – added sugars, high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, etc. Finally, ShopWell asked what foods I needed to avoid. I was quite impressed with their list – not only did they have the Top 8 Food Allergens, but they also listed Wheat and Gluten separately, for those with different levels of sensitivity. At this point, the app now knows what I need, as well as has personalized health scores for each food for me.
A little background on ShopWell: ShopWell determines the health score of each food item based on what is in that item, as well as what fits your specific needs that you have selected. ShopWell’s team includes registered dietitians, so I figure the information and scores are pretty reliable. Each score is from 0-100, and falls into three categories – Weak Match, Medium Match, High Match – which are visually represented by red, yellow, and green icons, respectfully. That makes it a lot easier for those quick glances at the app after you’ve scanned a product.
I tried a few items around my workplace and home, so here’s a few samples of what the app looks like after you’ve scanned a product:
After you scan a product, the product’s summary page appears. Each product’s individual health score is shown, the option to add the item to a shopping list, and three options that are better for you, or ‘trade ups’. Also, you can delve deeper into the nutrition and ingredient sections of the products if you want by clicking on the match indicator or the product detail tabs at the top. (Don’t worry, I’m coming back to the callout on the Pamela’s Products Cookies listing in a bit. Probably at the bottom of this post. If not sooner.)
Each health score comes with a detailed reason for how the number is determined. Also, within each nutrition section and ingredient listing, ShopWell color codes for you what you want, as well as what you don’t want, from the scanned product. Images below are from the Glutino pretzels (left), and Lay’s potato chips (center & right).
With the ShopWell app, you can also search for products if the bar code isn’t scanning, or browse for products. Browsing for products let you see the listings in three different ways – Relevance, Name, and Number. The Relevance sorting is by the product’s health score that is specific to you, while the Number sorting is by the health score assigned to the product, without your specific goals, wants, etc. applied.
One feature that I haven’t had a chance to try out first-hand yet is using the app to create a shopping list, and this is mainly timing and my lack of big grocery shopping trips at the moment. Each product listing allows you add that item to a shopping list to easily remember your most purchased items and be able to determine trade ups at the store itself. Each shopping list can be shared through the app as an email or text message. Finally, you can log on to your account online at ShopWell’s website, which has a listing of all of your shopping lists, as well as all of the functionality of the app, except for scanning of bar codes, of course.
Now, there is a where a “reality check” is needed by any user. Not every app is perfect, and most apps rely on information that is the best available information to developers at the time. I know that Pamela’s Products Cookies – specifically these Chunky Chocolate Chip ones – are gluten-free because I’ve read the ingredient listing on the box. ShopWell states that it contains wheat based on a the “Flour Blend” callout in the ingredient list. From my testing (and I’ve tested like 25 items), this is one of two incidents that the package has more recent information than the app (another was a PopChips bag). Every other time – ShopWell has been spot on.
Scanning products to see their health score has seriously become one of my latest obsessions. I’ve used it in the grocery store on quick grocery runs – we were going to have tacos for dinner yesterday, and I needed cheese. I stay away from shredded cheese because wheat is sometimes used as a anti-caking agent (a lesson told to me by J over at iamjtheblog.wordpress.com after she learned it the hard way), so I needed a block of cheese to shred. Using ShopWell, I evaluated the store options, and was able to pick out a cheese that was a score of 64 – better than the cheese we normally buy which has a score of 51.
I’ve also used ShopWell successfully to prevent myself from being “glutened” at work. We try lots of new consumer food products at work, and I had seen a package of GoPicnic’s gluten-free line of grab-and-go lunches waiting to be eaten. I scanned the bar code with ShopWell, and started opening the box. ShopWell told me to avoid the product because of a wheat reference – “sharing production line with other wheat ingredients.” Now, GoPicnic’s products are comprised of individually packaged items, so I gave away the potentially harmful package, and ate the rest for lunch. Without ShopWell, I might have missed the wheat reference on the individual package and had a much different experience. (Another lesson – always read every ingredient description kiddies.)
Overall, I wholly endorse ShopWell for individuals with food allergies, health concerns, or just healthy eating goals in general. I would love to see additional features down the road, like being able to use Foursquare API/GPS to determine which store you are in to get you the best trade ups for that store. However, I know that the app still relatively new – it was in beta in Sept 2010 – so I’m sure they have a lot of improvements in their pipeline. I’m looking forward to the future development of this app. For me, it should be an essential part of every grocery shopping trip, right alongside the grocery list.