July 16, 2008

Winston-Salem Journal, N.C., Michael Hastings Column

By Michael Hastings, Winston-Salem Journal, N.C.

Jul. 16--When I first heard about Zeer.com, I thought it was simply a Web site full of food-product reviews by typical consumers -- kind of the supermarket equivalent of the Zagat restaurant guides.

That sounds like a decent idea. So many new products come out every year that it's impossible for one person to keep up with them. I'm sure I'm not alone when I see new products in the store and wonder if they're any good. But I'm reluctant to risk the cash to find out.

So my initial reaction was that this is a useful site for finding out if the Budweiser barbecue sauce or lime-flavored Tostitos are any good.

But the more I wandered through the site, the more I liked it for other reasons -- namely, the MySpace qualities that allow people to find other people with common interests.

A personal touch

Zeer was founded in 2007 by Michael Putnam, a former e-commerce analyst, who wants people to "believe in what they buy."

As it says on the site, www.zeer.com wants to offer your personalized supermarket "with all of your friends hanging out ... and all of the products you like and need in one place."

Zeer, which was recently voted one of the Top 50 Web sites by Time.com, has the following features:

--A database of more than 110,000 products with a number of reviews by fellow consumers.

--The ability for members to add their own reviews.

--A program to create grocery lists, inventory lists and more to keep your pantry and food shopping organized.

--Mobile-phone service so you can access any of the site's data while you are shopping.

--A wide selection of communities to join, based on specific interests.

A smorgasbord of searches

Joining is free, but you can use a lot of the features without joining.

The Products section includes full ingredient lists and other information for the products. It also has a good search function. You can search by a specific product name or the universal price code, by a general type of food, or by a specific ingredient. The search function also includes a slew of categories to cover sodium content, fat, sugar, cholesterol, allergies, kosher, organic and halal (foods in conformance with Islamic dietary practices). Even more impressive are the search options for specific vitamins, nutrients or minimum or maximum calories in each serving. And the search also can limit results based on Zeer-member ratings.

I quickly found that using too many of these search functions at once often turns up no results. But a search for a kosher, low-sodium, low-fat, gluten-free bread, for instance, turns up seven results. Add organic to the criteria, and the results go down to one.

By the way, the database has 371 kosher foods and 3,670 organic foods.

But I think the Communities section might be more useful. Zeer has 31 different communities. One is a general "Zeer talk" forum. The others are marked by particular interests.

It has six subcategories for allergies, including soy, milk and peanuts.

Dieters can choose from low-carb, low-fat or Weight Watchers.

The health-conscious communities include ones for pregnant women, diabetics and those interested in preventing cancer.

There are communities for parents, vegans, "green-living" folks, bachelors and bachelorettes, beer lovers, pet lovers, ice-cream lovers and more.

Users can designate friends on the site, or they can simply check out profiles and reviews by any other member. It doesn't take long on this site to pinpoint certain members who share your interests or who tend to have opinions about products that jibe with your own.

Sarah C. from New York comes off as a healthy eater with an interest in protecting the environment. Molly P. from Boston is a snack-food lover. Sara P. from Bloomington, Ill., is crazy about nuts, pickles and ice cream.

But the next time I see something new in the store, I'll make a note to call up Zeer.com on the computer and see what some other people think.

Michael Hastings, the Journal's Food editor, can be contacted by phone at 727-7394, e-mail at [email protected], or mail at c/o Winston-Salem Journal, P.O. 3159, Winston-Salem, NC 27102. His most recent columns can be read on our Web site at www.journalnow.com.


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