The unspoken question for food shoppers is "Should I eat this?"
The answer now comes from a $2.99 iPhone and iPad app called NxtNutrio, created by Fuat and Laurie Kerkinni of Burnsville. If a shopper scans a food product's UPC bar code with an iPhone, the app is designed to list the contents of the product.
While NxtNutrio is not the first nutritional app, Fuat Kerkinni said it provides more information than most. Taking into account any special food restrictions the user has, the app also will offer an opinion on whether to eat the product, using the classic traffic signal colors green, yellow or red.
"We have no ties to any food manufacturers," Fuat Kerkinni said. "We look at the food ingredients, because what goes into the food has to be good for the food to be good."
NxtNutrio's website (www.nxtnutrio.com) says that "bad" ingredients include allergens, food additives and food processing methods that can adversely affect the body.
The Kerkinnis, both 48, developed the NxtNutrio app through his Burnsville-based software company, Nxtranet, but they have plans to spin it off as a separate business. At this point the app isn't profitable, even though it has been downloaded about 10,000 times since 2009, he said.
"We know we're not going to make any money on it for a while," he said. "But once we get over 100,000 to 150,000 apps downloaded we'll start to see the fruits of it. Within about a year we should be able to break even."
Today NxtNutrio can search a database of 200,000 food products and their ingredients, or about 10 times more entries than it had when the product launched three years ago, Kerkinni said. That doesn't cover all the food products available, so the Kerkinnis are focusing on packaged items typically carried by food co-ops.
One user is the Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis, which lets shoppers use the app on a spare iPhone.
"So many customers have dietary issues, such as the need for gluten-free or dairy-free food items, and when they use the app they can customize it to their dietary concerns," said Luke Schell, general manager of the co-op. "When the iPhone scans the bar code on the item, the app tells you if that food is recommended or not."
The app is helpful to co-op consumers who are sometimes puzzled by ingredient lists on foods, Schell said.
"I don't think there are a lot of users of this app yet, but we see the potential. So we bought couple of copies of the app to put on our store's two iPhones."
Another potential customer is Life Time Fitness of Chanhassen, which has been in talks about remarketing the NxtNutrio app.
"It is fair to suggest that we are aware of the app,'' said Life Time Fitness spokesman Jason Thunstrom.
Laurie Kerkinni, whom her husband described as "an evangelist when it comes to nutrition," supervises the database from which the app draws its ingredient lists and nutritional recommendations. A culinary school graduate, her information comes from sources including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, based in Washington, D.C., and the Cornucopia Institute, based in Cornucopia, Wis.
Some say not all the app's advice is good. Heidi Greenwaldt, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Dietetic Association, took issue with a statement on NxtNutrio's website that food packaging nutrition labels listing calories, total fat, cholesterol, sodium and total carbohydrate percentages "are about as meaningful as telling you that the human body is made up of three basic elements."
"NxtNutrio is kind of peeling down to another layer of information, which is good, but the top layer is still important to know about," Greenwaldt said. "People with diabetes need to see how many carbohydrates are in food, and people who have kidney problems need to know the sodium level."
Fuat Kerkinni agreed.
"I think we've just scratched the surface," he said. "There will be later versions of the product, and we listen to what people are saying."
Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553