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14 apps to help you shop, cook, and eat better

So you’ve made the decision to reboot your diet: Eat healthier, cook more, and — once you download all the necessary apps — live your best food life. But choosing which app is worth your phone’s precious memory is harder than it looks. With new options appearing daily and each one claiming to solve every conceivable dietary challenge, the process can be daunting.

“We don’t know of any healthy eating apps that have undergone rigorous evaluation and been demonstrated to have evidence of health benefit,” says David Goldberg, vice president for communications at Healthy Food America, a nonprofit dedicated to using science to build a healthier food environment. While his group doesn’t recommend anyone rely on apps alone, he says, “We have seen a couple of tools that have useful features.”

Here are some of the best recommended by the experts, including dietitians, doctors, chefs, and food entrepreneurs (all of whom pledge they have no stake in any of the companies).  

The typical grocery store has more than 40,000 products on its shelves. Choosing the best is no easy feat. Luckily, there are several apps for that.

1. Fooducate: Using a standard A through F grading scale, this app rates grocery products for their overall healthfulness. Just scan the bar code and get the information you need. “Science-based, sensible, holistic in its perspective,” says David L. Katz, director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, noting that it “addresses both how and why” certain food choices are good for health and weight control. Goldberg recommends Fooducate particularly for its added sugars line: While the federal government will require food manufacturers to provide that information on labels in July 2018, this tool allows users get their sugar fix now.

2. Food Scores Database: This database, accessed through the Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living app, also uses a bar-code scan to provide a rating. It has a 1 through 10 scale based on nutrition, controversial ingredients, and amount of processing. It, too, gets rave reviews from the pros: “The Food Scores Database is like no other if you want to understand the truth about the ingredients in your packaged food, how your food is processed, plus critical nutrition information,” says Stefanie Sacks, a culinary nutritionist and author of What The Fork Are You Eating. “It’s a game changer for assessing our food,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian based in Cleveland. “An excellent resource for consumers to understand what’s actually in the food they are buying, whether it’s pesticides, preservatives, or contaminants,” says Rebecca Katz, a chef and author of books including The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen and The Healthy Mind Cookbook. (Bonus: The app also includes the Skin Deep database, which rates cosmetic products.)

While many nutritionists advise you to focus on foods, not calories, tracking apps can help wake up users to how much they’re eating, both at home and at restaurants. “If you’re dining out at a chain, it helps to check a calorie-counting app or search on your phone’s web browser before you order, so you know how many calories will end up on your plate,” says Lindsay Moyer, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit food industry watchdog. Many of these track calories consumed and burned, allow users to set weight loss goals, calculate daily calorie allowances, and offset them when you exercise. (Moyer adds one note of caution: users can add nutrition facts to some app databases, so listings aren’t always accurate.)

1. Lose It: “This app has it all ... a great food-logging component, a fantastic workout log, daily challenges, competitions, social engagement with others, and awesome data,” says Jenna Wolfe, a fitness expert and Coach for Kids Ambassador for Wellness in the Schools, a nonprofit focused on building healthy environments in U.S. public schools. “This app really helped me lose my baby weight” after having each of her kids, Wolfe adds. It’s also recommended by Stephanie Perruzza, an in-house nutritionist at Kind, the maker of fruit-and-nut bars. She praises the app’s bar-code scanner, add-your-own-recipes feature—and its persistence. If you stop tracking for a couple of days, expect an alert that reminds you to get back to it. 

2. MyFitnessPal: “I love MyFitnessPal, as it makes keeping a careful food diary a breeze,” says Yoni Freedhoff, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and author of The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work. Exercise gurus agree: “Very simple and easy for people to log their meals and understand what they’re eating,” says Jared D. Glenn, a certified personal trainer at the gym chain Equinox. Laura Kovall, owner and founder of The Fit Co. NYC, a gym focused on convenient lunch hour workouts, also says she’s a fan.

3. Rise: For users who want to bring a professional into their food tracking, Rise offers easy, one-on-one nutrition coach consultations with a subscription. Simply snap a photo of your meal, send it through the app, and get feedback on what’s right and what’s wrong with the meal. (Good: lots of greens! Bad: creamy dressing.) Subscribers get feedback once a day from their coaches, but Rise also offers a live chat with an on-call, registered dietitian from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for those with diet questions that just can’t wait. “I appreciate that the program focuses more on caloric quality and health than simply prioritizing lower-calorie choices without taking into account ingredients,” says Andy Bellatti, a Las Vegas-based dietitian and strategic director of Dietitians For Professional Integrity, who also likes the daily accountability and learning component.

What you eat has an impact on more than just your health. It affects the environment where its ingredients are produced, the animals raised to make them, and the people that do the work to bring the final product to your plate.

1. Seafood Watch: Created by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, this tool helps users make sustainable seafood choices. “Seafood, especially fish, is often looked to as a healthy source of protein,” says Elizabeth Lee, an Orange County, Calif.-based dietitian who recommends the app. “But with the increased consumption of seafood comes sustainability issues.” Pull it up when picking out fish at the supermarket, or when selecting your entree at a restaurant. “I use it to make sure I’m still eating sustainably when I go out,” says Michael Joseph, chief executive officer of Green Chef, an organic meal kit company.

2. Food Labels Exposed: Understanding the multitude of labels on animal products shouldn’t require an explanatory app — but having one sure makes it easier. Pasture-raised vs. grass-fed vs. no antibiotics vs. free-range … keeping up is hard to do. Never fear: Animal Welfare Approved, a nonprofit, and its app are here to help. “This app is the bottom-line resource to clear up any confusion,” says nutritionist Sacks.

3. Locavore: For those looking to support local farmers by buying regionally grown peaches, kale, and broccoli, this tool will help find them. Using your phone’s GPS, it locates nearby farms, farmer’s markets, and community-supported agriculture programs that let growers sell directly to consumers. It will tell you what’s in season, for how much longer, and where to find it. It “helps you get in the habit of eating fresh food at the peak of ripeness and flavor,” says food blogger Tess Masters, also known as the Blender Girl and author of the forthcoming cookbook, The Perfect Blend. (If you happen to live in Missouri, try the similar Seasonal and Simple, recommended by Megan Gilmore of Detoxinista.com and author of the forthcoming No Excuses Detox.)

Eating out is almost always going to mean eating more, which is why so many health professionals advise clients to spend more time cooking. A number of apps can help the tired, the overworked, the just-want-to-get-home-and-order-Seamless crowd overcome the obstacles to making a homemade and nutritious meal.

1. Instagram: Follow some healthy foodie accounts to add some quick inspiration to your feed. “I’m constantly discovering cool food facts, healthy meals, and interesting food combinations,” says Sam Slover, co-founder and CEO of the Sage Project, a data platform focused on providing smart, simple, and personalized nutrition information. His favorite accounts include The Kitchn and BuzzFeedHealth.

2. NYT Cooking: A collection of more than 17,000 New York Times recipes from greats like Craig Claiborne, Melissa Clark, and Sam Sifton, the app sorts recipes into helpful categories like "One Pot," "Vegetarian," "Times Classics," and "Weekday," with beautiful photos and cooking times prominently displayed. “This app helps users become better and more informed cooks,” says Jeff Turnas, president of 365 by Whole Foods Market. “It’s on trend with flavors and cooking styles while still focused on creating quality content people can trust.”

3. Oh She Glows: Angela Liddon’s vegan recipe blog has been a favorite of home cooks for almost a decade, propelling a 2014 cookbook and now an app with her most popular offerings. Convenient features include ingredient searches, the capability to allow recipe modifications, and filters including season and allergens. “Whenever I feel like I’m in a rut and want easy, plant-based dishes to make, this is my go-to app,” says chef Bryant Terry, a James Beard Leadership Award winner, activist, and author of the cookbook Afro-Vegan.

4. Yummly: This one allows users to search offerings from top recipe sites and food blogs such as Food52, Epicurious, and Chow, helps with shopping lists, and links to Instacart for easy ordering. “It’s the best search engine for recipes, bar none,” says Mike Lee, founder of The Future Market, a futurist food lab based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

5. Ratio: Don’t like recipes? Then this is the right app for you. Created by Michael Ruhlman, author of Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, the focus is on understanding the right proportions in cooking and using them to create endless combinations. “I use this as a basis for improvising and tailoring foods to my needs or wants,” Lee says.

6. Instacart: Yes, using Instacart, the grocery delivery service that brings your order to your door in as little as an hour, is going to be more expensive than grocery shopping yourself. But sometimes the convenience is worth it. “Restaurant takeout or delivery can be tempting when time is tight on a busy weeknight,” Moyer says. She recommends Instacart for those nights the supermarket is too much of a hassle. “It makes it easier to cook a simple, healthy meal at home.”

This article originally published at Bloomberg here

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