This article originally ran as part of our Food Weekly newsletter .
Staying on top of a healthy and sustainable diet that incorporates individual needs and preferences can be daunting. Sometimes, I wish eating well was just like installing solar panels or buying an electric car: making a choice once that sets you up well for the next decade or so.
Unfortunately, it’s just not how eating works – it requires intention and discipline several times a day. Sticking to principles such as buying products that are organic, fair trade or plant-based and establishing a meal planning and prepping routine can somewhat ease this burden. Still, a lot of decisions go into evaluating ingredient labels, finding good recipes and researching the health and environmental impact of various options.
An appreciation of this complexity — and often frustration with making such choices in their own lives — is leading entrepreneurs to build consumer-facing apps that facilitate and incentivize better habits. I’ve taken a closer look at apps in three categories and am excited to share my top pick for shopping, cooking and reducing waste.
GreenChoice takes the headache out of shopping
This first app was born out of the frustration Galen Karlan-Mason experienced as an undergraduate in grocery aisles when trying to shop with his nut and gluten allergies in mind.
“I was destined to read every single ingredient label and realized how hard it must have been for my mom to buy food for our family that caters to both my dietary restrictions and her focus on health and sustainability,” the founder and CEO of GreenChoice said.
Fast forward to today, Karlan-Mason and his team have analyzed and rated over 350,000 food and beverage items commonly found in U.S. grocery stores. Products can be awarded up to 100 points, based on four categories: nutritional value (balance of good and bad nutrients), level of processing, food safety (use of pesticides, herbicides, hormones, antibiotics and toxic additives) and environmental footprint (greenhouse gas emissions and water use).
These ratings provide the backbone of an app and online grocery platform on which users can input up to 90 dietary filters to get personalized product recommendations. The app can also be used as a barcode scanner in physical grocery stores to gain immediate insights into a product’s impact.
Beyond merely providing consumers with information, GreenChoice is also using its product design to nudge them toward better choices. For example, it places products with the highest scores on top of search results and suggests healthier and more sustainable alternatives to consumers while they shop. While its online platform is currently only integrated with a few retailers, the startup is planning to launch a large proprietary online store before the end of this year.
Kuri serves as a personalized recipe-whisperer
“I was just a clueless omnivore when starting to work on Kuri,” Batpiste Malaguti, co-founder and CEO, told me. He wanted to get around the tedious search for recipes on long food blogs that would match his skill level and equipment. But in the process of building the app, he got sucked into the world of carbon footprinting and ended up founding the climate-friendly startup. Malaguti’s primary appreciation of good food shows in the aesthetics of the app, its food photography and the quality of the recipes.
Similar to GreenChoice, the cooking app comes with a huge selection of filters, making using it a breeze for all types of eaters and cooks. It allows users to build a personalized profile based on their dietary choices (omnivore, pescetarian, vegetarian or vegan), allergies, cooking skills and even the spices they have available. When choosing a specific recipe, users can additionally sort for types of meals, cuisines, preparation time and ingredients.
While all of these make life in the kitchen a whole lot easier, I particularly appreciated the feature to choose ingredients. For one, I’m not organized enough to first plan my meals and then go shopping. So my dinners always start with a look into the fridge and pantry. Secondly, cooking based on the ingredients at hand helps users reduce their food waste.
In contrast to GreenChoice, seasonality plays an important role for Kuri’s sustainability rating, which in turn influences the recipes it suggests to users. According to Kuri’s analysis, out of season ingredients tend to have much larger carbon footprints than seasonal ones — mostly due to the growing practices, not food miles.
It also reflects consumer interest, particularly in the startup's home country. “French people are a lot more excited about seasonal cooking than their climate impact. So it’s a good way to draw in new people,” Malaguti told me. “We are careful not to over-communicate on sustainability to not rule out users who just come for a good cooking experience.”
No matter users’ initial intention, Kuri’s data show that a well designed app can go a long way when it comes to slashing greenhouse gas emissions. The startup reports a 60 percent lower carbon footprint of the meals people cook when using Kuri, compared to an average meal in the U.S. While more than two thirds of its users are omnivore, 79 percent of what they cook with Kuri is meatless. The startup credits this success to its use of carbon labels, choice architecture and a strong emphasis on beautiful and original meatless recipes.
Too Good to Go helps you save money and food at the same time
My last recommendation is based on a simpler but nonetheless essential premise. Food should be eaten, not wasted. Too Good to Go’s app allows businesses — ranging from grocery stores, to bakeries, restaurants and farmers markets — to sell food they would otherwise throw away at a discounted price. The savings can be quite significant. In my neighborhood in San Francisco, items are offered at a third of their original price.
Philippe Schuler, global impact manager at the startup, told me the benefits went beyond cost savings for consumers: “Businesses win big too. They can attract a new consumer base, generate revenue for food they would have thrown away and save costs on waste hauling. This matters particularly in Europe where hauling fees can be quite expensive.” The environmental impact is critical too, given that food waste accounts for approximately 8-10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The Danish app already has over 46 million users, mostly in Europe, and is expanding rapidly across the U.S. Having been spoiled by the expansive filters of the other two apps, I was however disappointed with the level of choice I had. All products come in “surprise bags” put together by participating businesses. The app recommends getting in touch with the business directly if users are concerned about certain ingredients. While this isn’t an outrageous request, I fear that even such a small barrier will hold back many people from taking advantage of an otherwise fabulous service.
Overall, the three apps provide a great experience and a valuable learning opportunity for eaters around the world. While it’s certainly harder to quantify, I’d like to see GreenChoice and Kuri incorporate social impact into their sustainability ranking in future versions of their products as that’s noticeably absent now.