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Bringing an iPhone to Dinner Can Help Your Health, Nutrition, and the Environment

Between 2009 and 2011, the number of teenagers owning smart phones nearly tripled. What’s more, 62% of adults aged 25-34 who own mobile phones have smart phones, as well as 54% of mobile adults aged 35-44. I didn’t even purchase a cell phone until my late teens and in those days, it was taboo in my family to bring out the offending object during dinner.

Nowadays, look around your kitchen or your local restaurant and you will see people snapping photos of their plates, reading reviews of menu items, or entering their daily nutrient intakes. Not being an avid iPhone user, I find many of these applications tiresome. Still, I’ve been intrigued by the intersection between sustainable eating and mobile technology. Consumers are facing a continually increasing number of brands to choose from and ingredients to decipher. Greenwashing and misleading advertising have made it difficult to make educated decisions, such as the “Smart Choices” campaign that was phased out in 2009 after nutritionists questioned the program’s criteria. Smart phones are countering these problems by providing applications developed by reputable organizations and independent certifiers. The apps provide immediate access to information about health and the environment, making mobile technology a key player in helping people live sustainable lifestyles.

The way we define ourselves as eaters has created a number of labels: vegetarian, omnivore, vegan, lacto-vegetarian, flexitarian, ovo-vegetarian. I prefer to follow what my colleague loosely calls “conscious consumption,” which means I eat everything in moderation while staying informed about the health and environmental impacts of what I’m consuming.

There are many smart phone applications available to help me in this quest:

  1. GoodGuide rates consumer products on health, environmental, and social factors. 
  2. Eight Glasses a Day tracks daily water intake. 
  3. The Eatery utilizes user photos to crowd source health ratings about people’s food choices. Bar code scans are being developed that link fresh produce to videos about the farmers who grew it.


Many of these applications could convince people to choose more sustainable brands or swap that potato chip bag for an apple. They are especially useful for people who don’t mind taking photos of everything they eat or spending extra time at the grocery store scanning items pre-purchase. I never considered myself in that category because I enjoy meals where my date doesn’t have his head buried in his smart phone, and because I already stay current on the sustainability initiatives of food companies through my career. I am also fortunate to live in a city where a plethora of farmers' markets and natural food stores makes it easy to find produce and packaged goods that I feel good about buying.

Yet the one area where I’ve had more difficulty is the topic of humane treatment of animals. I grew up in the Midwest and will never stop eating my beloved cheeseburgers. But I’m also a passionate animal lover and want to be sure I’m eating meat and seafood that was humanely raised and slaughtered, with steps taken to limit impacts on the environment. Again, farmers markets are a good way to speak directly with the people who are handling your proteins. Packaging and in-store displays have also made meat selection slightly easier when shopping retail. There are a variety of certification labels available, including the American Humane Certified Program and Certified Humane. The Global Animal Partnership is also about to expand its pilot 5-Step Program, a project initially created for Whole Foods Market.

Eating in a restaurant can be considerably more challenging. Menus may helpfully list the farms where they source their meat but with little information attached. It would be useful to ask a waiter what farm my filet mignon came from and be able to quickly look up details about the rancher’s practices on my smart phone. Similarly, I greatly respect the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch but have difficulty staying current with their latest fish recommendations. Downloading the Aquarium’s corresponding iPhone application easily solves this problem.

USA Today deemed 2010 the “Year We Stopped Talking To Each Other.” While dramatic, this statement has merit. When I have children, I will still ask that they put away their phones when we’re trying to spend time as a family during mealtime. In the end, though, it might also be worth an extra five minutes to whip out my smart phone to use an application or two, knowing that I can then be morally at ease with the delicious morsels I’m about to consume.

Photo Credit: Amy Fuller

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