In a genteel corner of the World Wide Web, where the goal is just to help you find something good and healthful to eat, there’s a heated battle taking place for your loyalty. The combatants don’t create dishes, and they don’t test them. They help you find recipes.
In recent years, the Web has become littered with these portals promising the best of the Internet’s recipes right at your fingertips. They include Foodieview, Yummly and TasteBook, among many others of varying sophistication, quality and silliness of name. Some of the search engines, such as Yummly’s, are highly complex and offer the ability to search by price, time, allergies, price and even taste preferences (like salty, sweet or bitter). Others can barely find a reason to exist, let alone a decent recipe.
All of these sites, of course, must have felt as insignificant as a weekend dishwasher in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen when neighborhood bully Google rolled out its recipe search function earlier this year. Google’s tool allows you to narrow your search by ingredient, time and calorie counts but has a maddening supermarket-tabloid personality: It prefers glossy, high-profile sites over all others, regardless of the quality of the dish.
The latest entrant into the recipe food fight is Foodily, which launched in February but unleashed its secret weapon Monday: a search function that automatically calculates the nutritional values for every recipe it fetches from the Web. Foodily engineers have managed to intregate the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national nutrient database into its system, so that each recipe features calculations on total calories, calories per gram, saturated fat, unsaturated fat, carbohydrates, sugar, protein, cholesterol, sodium and fiber.
Calculating nutritional information is nothing new for recipe-heavy sites. Allrecipes.com relies on the ESHA Nutrient Database for the information on its site, while Food.com (formerly Recipezaar) relies on the same USDA database as Foodily. What’s more, one of Foodily’s chief rivals, Yummly, also offers USDA nutritional information on the recipes it finds on the Web.
But Foodily’s model may be the most reader-friendly and integrated of all the recipe search engines currently available. Each result displays the number of calories per gram in the dish as well as the percentage of total calories for each nutrient. So, for example, if you decide to prepare the Steak Tartare recipe, which Foodily pulls from the BBC Good Food site, you’ll see that it contains 437 calories total (or 2.4 calories per gram) and that 49.9 percent of those calories are derived from fat while 1.6 percent come from carbs. For the nutritionally challenged, Foodily labels the fat content “high” and the carbs “low.” It’s sort of dummy proof — well, except for the fact that you’ll likely need a gram scale to measure your precise caloric intake.
CEO Andrea Cutright, one of the Yahoo refugees who launched Foodily, told me last week that the site didn’t want to calculate the nutritional information by serving size, as is traditional, because serving sizes are, by and large, totally bogus, designed for supermodels whose body weight must never top 98.5 pounds. Okay, Cutright didn’t say that. But she did say serving sizes vary too much to be of much value for most eaters (unless, of course, the serving size is more concrete like a “half-cup per serving.”)
Despite this reasonable, if complicated, move, Foodily still has problems. For starters, some ingredients, particularly exotic ones, are not part of the USDA database and, therefore, cannot be calculated. Foodily readily acknowledges when ingredients are nutritionally MIA. More problematic, though, are the limitations of the Foodily-USDA database mind-meld: Since these calculations are done via bloodless computer programs, they leave no room for imperfect, real-life situations, such as the brine for the Harissa Fried Chicken from Food52. Because Foodily’s program cannot account for how much sodium the bird has actually absorbed, it calculates the whole cup of salt. Your sodium count is a heartstopping 111,835.5 milligrams.
Then there are those recipes that call for already composed products, like sourdough starters or pastas, which the USDA database can’t calculate without a more precise breakdown of ingredients. Or those recipes that are broken up into separate components on the site of origin. Take the Grilled Blackened Salmon with Pineapple Mango Salsa, which is pulled from the For the Love of Cooking blog. You’ll see that the recipe author has neglected to include salmon or olive oil in the list of ingredients and then provides a separate recipe for the pineapple mango salsa. Foodily includes only the blackened seasoning recipe and calculates the total calories for the dish at 139.
Not so much.
In the latter case, you can understand why a time-pressed home cook searching for a healthful recipe might go straight to sites like Allrecipes or Food.com, where the member-generated recipes can be mostly vetted through nutritional databases, without fear of whole sections being AWOL. Then again, the same time-pressed home cook would be relying on member-generated recipes, with all the red flags inherent in tester-less dishes.
Foodily’s selling point is that it draws from a vast network of recipes online, whether from The New York Times, epicurious.com or just one of your favorite bloggers. Its potential to find you a true, tested and tasty recipe is probably far greater than some user-generated site. But will you actually be able to trust the nutritional information that accompanies it? That’s when Foodily’s vast reach seems to work to its disadvantage; its small staff can’t begin to police all the thousands of recipes to determine whether each and every one offers sound nutritional advice based on a careful consideration of the ingredients.