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6 Secrets Shoppers Need to Know About Barcodes

Barcodes have evolved to tell shoppers everything from the health risks of a product to whether it was made under ethical conditions.


The humble barcode has been a regular part of grocery store shopping since 1974, with the first-ever product being scanned on June 26th of that year. Since then, they have become almost invisible, with some package designs finding ingenious ways to hide or dress up their somewhat garish appearance.

See Also on Kiplinger: 15 Ways to Save on Groceries Without Clipping Coupons

However, with smartphones and apps now becoming a part of our everyday lives, the importance of barcodes is changing. Now, instead of being something the store uses to track inventory, the code can be a great way to find out much more about the product itself. From secrets about the product's manufacturer, to allergy information and user reviews, here are six amazing things that barcodes can tell you.

1. What People Actually Think of the Product

Before you make a big purchasing decision, perhaps on a vacation, car, or TV, you research the reviews and see what people really think. When it comes to grocery items, however, most people don't have the time or energy to sit in front of a computer trawling the web for the latest consumer opinions on detergents or frozen foods. But now, if you have any doubts at all, you can scan the barcode of the product and find out what people really think of it.


For example, apps like OpenLabel and Purchx let you scan the label and read through reviews of the products you'll find in the typical grocery store aisles. A particularly interesting feature of OpenLabel is the ability to create an "honest" label for other people to read, highlighting things that you think other consumers should know. And Purchx has been called the "Yelp for products," with a database of over 3 million products reviewed by consumers just like you. With a barcode and a scanning app, you can literally tap into a vast collective user base of no-holds-barred opinions.

2. Instant Price Comparisons Across Multiple Stores

One of the many issues facing customers these days is buyer's remorse, particularly upon finding out that another store has the exact same product for much less than you just paid. You can always try going back to the store for a price match, or returning the item and buying the lower-priced product later. But that's all a lot of hassle.

Instead, using the power of your smartphone and the net, you can scan barcodes and instantly see what the price is for this item at hundreds of different stores. Apps like ShopSavvy and BuyVia give you access to a huge database of products, and after scanning the barcode in-store, you can see exactly what the product is going for, including shipping fees where applicable. You can also use this information to get an instant price-match in the store (Toys R Us is very good for this), and can set price alerts if you want to know when the item goes on sale, or dips below a price you specify.

3. Real (and Harmful) Ingredients in a Product

Want to know what's really hiding behind those complicated chemical names printed on the ingredient label? Well, there are myriad apps available to help you decode them, letting you know in plain English just what is hiding behind the label. GoodGuideChemical CuisineThinkDirtyHealthyLiving, and Food Facts give you the ingredients in ways that are easy to understand. Chemical Cuisine has a ratings system, ranging from "safe" to "avoid," and it can be eye-opening. For example, adipic acid is on the safe list, whereas benzoic acid should be avoided by certain people. Beverages, condiments, frozen meals, and soups are covered. Some of these apps will also suggest healthier, or better, alternatives to the product you're scanning.


4. Potential Allergy Issues

Nuts. Dairy. Gluten. Egg. If you or someone in your family has an allergy to a certain type of food, it can make shopping for food as arduous as finding a needle in a haystack. Every label has to be read, just in case (although more and more manufacturers are now plainly displaying potential allergy issues on the label).

If you want to make this process a whole lot quicker and easier, use an app that scans for allergy issues. Apps like Ipiit and Content Checked are customizable based on your specific allergy requirements. For instance, you may be fine with gluten, but need to steer clear of nuts and dairy. Select those issues, scan the barcode, and the app will let you know if a product is good to go, or if you should avoid it. Of course, nothing is foolproof, as reported back in 2014. By now, the apps will have collected far more information and should have a much more thorough database of foods and allergens, but as always, you use these apps at your own risk.

5. Sustainability and Environmental Impact

These days, most of us try and do our bit for the environment. We want to choose products that are environmentally friendly, and made from sustainable resources. But without committing to hours and hours of research, it's not easy to be an Earth-conscious consumer. Technology once again comes to the rescue, with apps like GoodGuide and Social Impact. GoodGuide can uncover a wealth of information with just a quick scan of the product's barcode, delivering comprehensive information on just how green the product it is, and how healthy and safe it is, too. Products are ranked out of 10, and also use a handy color-coded system to show you what you're buying. Green is go, red is stop, and yellow is "well, let your conscience be your guide… but don't say we didn't warn you."

6. If the Product Is Made Under Ethical Conditions

It's awful to even think about, but child labor, forced employment and slavery exist even today. You just have to look at a pair of shoes with an $8.99 price tag to know that someone, somewhere, is suffering to achieve that insanely low price. But it's not always easy to tell, especially if the price of the product seems to justify decent working conditions, and the brand name feels trustworthy. Well, now you don't have to guess. There are several apps and browser plugins that will let you drill down into the manufacturing details of the product in question, giving you ratings for the ethical conditions under which the product was made. Free2Work and Ethical Barcode can show you if the product is tested on animals, or if it was flagged for being made using child labor.


This article is from Paul Michael of Wise Bread, an award-winning personal finance and credit card comparison website.

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This article is from Wise Bread, not the Kiplinger editorial staff.