Software Reviews: Apps for growers, cooks and concerned eaters

Good for you or bad for you? Home-grown or farmed? Food fascinates us, but with mobile apps to help at almost every step, it need not be a mystery.

Apps for foodies

Grow, cook, eat

Type ‘food apps’ into a web search engine and there’s a fair chance that most of the top hits will be restaurant finders and apps for food delivery or take-away services. Just a layer below though will be more recipe apps than you can shake a wooden spoon at.

Online recipes are massively popular, to the extent that when the BBC announced in May 2016 that it would close its free and much-used BBC Food recipe website to cut costs, it was headline news across the UK. Stung by criticism, the corporation hastily backpedalled, saying it would instead fold its recipes into its commercial BBC Good Food site.

Given this popularity, the challenge for developers is making your recipe app different from all the others - and in particular, making users stick with it when there are so many alternatives. Mindful of the problems that attend using a touchscreen device as a recipe book when your fingers could be covered in flour, butter or worse, several have spotted an opportunity for a voice-controlled app. Examples include Yes Chef on iPhone, Cooklet on Android and SideChef on both.

The concept will be familiar to users of the various voice assistants, such as Siri on the iPhone, Android’s Google Now, Cortana on Windows 10, Amazon’s Alexa and several others. Typically you say a keyword to wake up the app, followed by a command, and it reads out the next step, for example, or lets you search the recipe database.

Of course, for the moment the main users of such technology are the visually-impaired. Generic speech recognition is still evolving - Apple has updated the iPhone’s voice capabilities in recent versions of iOS, for instance, which may be why some of the older iPhone apps we tried no longer worked - and few of those lucky enough to be able to see the screen properly will have the patience to learn to speak the way the app expects. Nevertheless, it is a rather interesting example of the way things are heading.

The other evolving technology for getting information into a computer (or phone) is text recognition, and here too app developers have spotted foodie needs. Many cooks will have a folder or scrapbook full of recipes saved from magazines or jotted down by family or friends. The challenge is remembering what’s where, when a scrapbook has neither an index nor a text search option.

Enter Forq, an iPhone app which applies handwriting and optical character recognition (OCR, in English only so far) to the task of recipe management. Take a photo of your recipe, and it attempts to turn it into searchable text. It also mixes in its own recipe database and then layers on a large dollop of social networking, allowing you to share your recipes - or just snaps of the results - with the Forq community. You can keep the recipe private if you want, or add it to your calendar for meal planning.

We found that Forq worked remarkably well with both printed and handwritten text, just from a photo. If it makes mistakes or misses something, you can edit the resulting text on your phone, though not on your PC.

British Geological Survey

MySoil, Free on Android, Apple

For the farmer or the serious gardener, knowing about your soil is pretty important. That’s where mySoil comes in, giving you access to a Europe-wide map of soil properties. You start with a map showing the different terrain types in different colours, and can either simply pick a spot on the map or enter a search term such as a postcode or grid reference.

Continent-wide it includes soil depth, parent material and texture, while within the UK it adds annual and monthly average temperatures, pH and, where appropriate, the soil depth and dominant habitat, such as woodland or farmland. You can also add your own observations of soil pH and texture, plus a photo and description, and look up those added by others.

If you need soil data on a wider scale, the Dutch-headquartered World Soil Information institute ISRIC publishes its own SoilInfo app, also on Android and iPhone. This adds data such as organic carbon content and carbon-exchange capacity, and information on soil taxonomies.

US Dept of Agriculture

FoodKeeper, Free on iOS & Android 4.4+

Food wastage is one of the scandals of the modern age. One of the problems, along with buying too much and - arguably - having too much choice, is that we don’t always know how long we can safely keep foods for. This is especially true with fresh and cooked foods, and often leads people to throw things away just to be on the safe side.

FoodKeeper aims to help here by providing safe storage recommendations for a wide range of foodstuffs, whether refrigerated, frozen or simply in the pantry or cupboard. There are cooking tips, too, for the likes of meat, poultry, eggs and seafood.

While it is developed by the US Department of Agriculture and is therefore US-oriented (for example, it lists ground beef instead of minced beef), it does support metric units. In addition, as well as searching the FoodKeeper database, you can add a ‘remember to use’ note to your diary and access the USDA’s online advice database, called Ask Karen. This includes information on a wide range of food-related topics, not just storage, such as allergens and illnesses.

Royal Horticultural Society

Grow Your Own, Free on iPhone

One of the most satisfying things you can do is eat food that you have grown yourself. It is remarkably easy to do, so why do so few people bother? One reason is they think it takes too much work, yet in reality managing a fruit and veg garden is not much harder in most respects than managing a decorative garden - assuming you have the right advice, of course.

That’s where the RHS’s Grow Your Own app comes in. It provides information on a range of popular plants, along with useful tips on the amount of care needed, when to sow, plant out and harvest, and on common problems. There is a calendar section which tells you at what stage the plant should be in and if there is anything you should be doing to it, such as feeding with fertiliser, harvesting or  pruning.

The app is location-aware, for frost warnings, drought alerts and watering reminders. You can also add your own notes, buy seeds online, and link into the RHS website for extra information, for example on pests.

The free app includes 39 popular fruit and veg varieties. As befits an iPhone-only app, apples are on the list, along with pears and several varieties of soft fruit, and a range of salad and other common veg. If you want the ones that aren’t there, such as plums, gooseberries, cucumbers or spinach, or any herbs beyond fennel, three additional packages of plants are £1.99 each.


Food Additives, Free on Android

Few foodie things excite more fear, uncertainty and doubt than additives. Widely used for all sorts of reasons, most are largely harmless, despite the scares spread by self-appointed nutritional experts - for a satirical take on the latter, look up dihydrogen monoxide on the web.

At the same time though, not all are harmless to everybody. Whether they are colourings, preservatives, sweeteners or whatever, some are allergens or are not advised for the pregnant or hyperactive, while a few may violate dietary or religious taboos, for example, by being non-vegetarian.

Part of the problem is that additives are rarely well explained. Even when they are listed on a package, it is often just as a series of E numbers or obscure chemical names. Deciphering these is where the Food Additives app comes in. Drawing on a variety of sources, it presents a list of more than 500 additives or ingredients along with flags for each one to show how it is produced, its legal status in the EU, US and Australia, and whether it is believed to present any risks. 

You can search either by number or by common name, which is also a useful way of connecting one to the other. How else would the average person learn that the detergent sodium laurylsulphate is also the E487 emulsifier used in some ice creams? Usefully, the whole database is pretty compact so it is downloaded as part of the app and no internet connection is needed to use it.

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