A few weekends ago, my sisters were in town and with a lot of help cooking (and watching the kids), my kitchen churned out Mochi Dumplings, grilled chicken marinated in this sesame-ginger vinaigrette, Love U Madly’s PB&J crepes and Kale Confetti Salad. By Sunday evening when my little sister missed her train back to NYC and my older sister, niece and nephew were still hanging around, my refrigerator was bare. My sisters giggled, surprised, as I took two packages of Perdue Turkey Meatballs out of the freezer. I added the meatballs to Trader Giotto’s Three Cheese Pomodoro Pasta Sauce and added fusilli. I defrosted some green beans and sauteed them with some seasoning. I was slumming it but the naysayers marveled at the tasty processed meatballs and how fast I turned out a really yummy meal for 10.
Later, that night, I had to text my sisters,”DON’T EVER BUY THOSE MEATBALLS.”
Their teasing had pushed me to find out more about possibly the only processed meat I’ve served to company. I used one of my favorite iPhone apps, FOODUCATE (also available on the web and on Droid), to see if the turkey meatballs were as harmless as I’d always imagined after eating them a few times at my mother-in-law’s house (she’s a fabulous cook often called upon to feed the masses congregated at her lake house).
I used my phone’s camera to scan in the meatballs’ barcode (you can also type in its name or UPC code). In an instant, I got this report:
Here’s what Fooducate told me:
OVERALL GRADE: C (when you tap the grade, a pop-up tells you that products in this category (sausages and hotdogs – UGH! I thought turkey was something else entirely!!) score between a B- and a D.
CALORIES: 180 per serving (average for the category)
Below the grade, Fooducate gives the product’s highlights – good, shown by a check mark in a green circle (none here!), neutral, shown by an i for information, and bad, shown by an exclamation point in a red circle. For the meatballs, there are seven bits of information, which are abbreviated on the home screen, but tapping on the screen brings you to a few digestible (for your brain that is) sentences on each, which I’ll summarize below.
- Salty! Has over 20% of the daily max. Enough said! The additional detail tells you how much sodium we should have in our diets and how most of us could cut back.
- Contains MSG / Equivalent. Fooducate provides names other ingredients that may mimic MSG in providing flavoring and possibly causing allergies to those sensitive to MSG.
- For dieters: FoodPoints value is 4. Here, the fewer points the better. The more familiar you are with the app, the more meaningful this becomes.
- Heavily processed product. It’s worth giving you the whole blurb here from Fooducate: “When was the last time you prepared something with more than 35 ingredients in it? If you’ll take a look at the ingredient list you’ll discover many new words to add to your vocabulary. Many of theses ingredients are required to increase the shelf life of the product and improve the flavor that disappears when food is not fresh.”
- Learn about corn syrup, found here.
- Natural Flavorings added. By “natural,” the manufacturers don’t mean bee’s honey and beet coloring…it may be better than artificial flavoring, but it likely contains glutamates or animal products.
- Learn about mechanically separated meat. SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU DON’T LIKE MOVIES LIKE FOOD, INC. and FORKS OVER KNIVES, STOP READING RIGHT NOW. Fooducate tells us: “Mechanically separated meat is manufactured by passing bones leftover after the initial cutting through a high pressure sieve. The resulting paste goes on to become the main ingredient in many a hot dog, bologna, chicken nuggets, pepperoni, salami, and jerky.”
Here I was naively thinking I was feeding my family lean turkey meat (albeit a little processed) and turns out I was pretty much feeding them hot dogs. I should point out that my 5 and a half year old has NEVER had an actual hot dog, though he’d had plenty of these meatballs before he turned vegetarian.
A click on the app allows you to see healthier alternatives (Trader Joe’s frozen turkey meatballs get a B-), though in this case, you can bet I’ll make my own meatballs from now on (Perdue ground turkey breast gets an A).
I’ve had Fooducate for a few months and I use it multiple times during every supermarket trip. I often get stumped in the cereal and bread aisles, trying to find a low-sugar cereal my kids will like, or a bread that is soft enough for lunchbox enjoyment but not loaded with soy fillers, oats/seeds that bug my kids or empty carbohydrates. The other day I spotted Kashi’s new Honey Sunshine Cereal in Whole Foods. The white box with cheerful yellow lettering was inviting. 20 grams Whole Grains! 5 grams fiber! Sounded terrifically healthy. We like Kashi’s Heart to Heart in our house, but sometimes it seems a bit too crunchy (so much harder than cheerios) for the morning.
I scanned in the UPC.
It scores a B-, in the category of Cold Cereals ranging from A- to D+. This product fared decently, especially for me, as I was seeking something low-sugar to start my kids off with in the morning; the green check indicating “less than 1.5 tsp of sugar. Nice.” A little soy lecithin (soybean extraction that helps the ingredients stick together) and some natural flavors though. Guess we are better off with the Heart to Heart (or Kix or Cheerios) and maybe we will try the Cascadian Farms Honey Clusters next time.
Next up, yogurt. We eat a lot of Chobanis and Fages, all which score As and A-s, even the honey and fruit flavors. My kids are often tempted by the characters on the labels and the squeezers, like Trader Joe’s Squishers.
Verdict: A little more sugar, but not terrible for a snack. The first suggested alternative is actually another Trader Joe’s product, which I appreciate while in the TJ’s dairy case.
The Fooducate website asserts that it is not funded or influenced by food manufacturers, supplement companies, diets, or any sort of magic pill. The free version, however, does have some advertising and sponsored messages, though you can upgrade to an ad-free version for $3.99. In two months, I have received just two messages on the free app, one from Yoplait Trix (which scores a B) and a coupon from Larabar (B- for most flavors).
So far, I’ve found shopping with Fooducate to be a quick, helpful guide to resist really good marketing and making more nutritious choices. It certainly seems aligned with Clean Food eating. On the Fooducate FAQ, to the question “Why doesn’t any food get an A+, Fooducate writes, “If you grow it in your backyard or buy directly from a farmer, give yourself an A+.”
From the Fooducate Website:
Fooducate is a team of parents, dietitians, and techies. We realize that at the supermarket you have very little time to analyze food labels and extract the information that is important to you. We’d like to help you make better choices for you and your family.
You get to see the stuff manufacturers don’t want you to notice, such as: excessive sugar, tricky trans fats, additives and preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, controversial food colorings, confusing serving sizes and more.