Despite all the consciousness-raising about eating more healthfully over the past few years, people are still getting fatter, and rates of nutrition-related diseases show no sign of leveling off. Israeli-American Hemi Weingarten, founder and CEO of Fooducate, has made it his mission to make people more aware of the “bad stuff” they are putting in their bodies.
“As a father of three young children, I try my best to buy and prepare healthy foods for my family,” says Weingarten. “But trips to the supermarket are really challenging — so many products, so many promises. If everything is so good for us, why is everyone getting fatter and sicker?”
Fooducate started out as a blog, inspired by a grocery shopping trip. “I checked the ingredients on a container of yogurt and noticed a substance called Red No. 40, a food coloring that has been linked to hyperactivity in children,” says Weingarten. “It’s banned in some European countries, and in others products that contain it require a warning label.”
After that experience, Weingarten began reading the small print on cans and packages to see what his family was consuming. “I read literature and analyzed data — and was shocked to learn at how the commercial food industry was stuffing us with unsafe substances and risky chemicals, and manipulating consumers into buying things that are bad for them,” he says.
Fooducate turned into a very successful blog about healthful eating. But Weingarten wanted to go beyond the web. Last year he created the Fooducate app, which has been downloaded more than a million times for iPhones and Android devices.
“I decided to parlay my love for technology and my concern for healthy eating into an app that would make it easier for people to make healthier shopping choices at the supermarket,” Weingarten says.
What’s really in those chips?
Working with a team of Israeli developers in Tel Aviv, and a sales office in the San Francisco area, Weingarten developed an app that automatically downloads data to shoppers as they wheel their carts through the market. They point their smart phone’s camera at a product’s barcode, which is then uploaded to Fooducate’s servers. The product is checked against Fooducate’s database of more than 200,000 products, sending back information about the ingredients, including any warning flags.
Using a unique algorithm, the app gives a grade to the product based on its overall healthfulness. Shoppers can easily and clearly see if there are excess sugar and sodium, tricky trans fats, additives and preservatives, high-fructose corn syrup, controversial food colorings or other problem ingredients lurking in the item. If the product scores poorly, Fooducate offers healthier alternatives.
By making it easier to figure out what people are ingesting, Weingarten hopes that more people will make better choices. So far, he says, users have scanned more than 10 million products, and the app has changed eating habits for many of them.
“According to our data, more than 80 percent of users said that the app convinced them to make better choices, while 50% said they bought a better, healthier product they had never used before, thanks to the recommendation function.
Working with food manufacturers
Fooducate is not afraid of taking on the food establishment, he adds. “Food manufacturers realize that something is going on, that the movement to healthier eating is a real one. So they are adapting themselves to the new environment, pushing their own healthier alternatives.”
In fact, one of the revenue streams Weingarten is examining is “healthy alternative” advertising by companies. “Say a cereal company’s product gets a low score,” he says. “We are examining the possibility of presenting that same company’s healthier cereal as an alternative in the information box.”
This will encourage manufacturers to come up with more healthy products, using Fooducate data for their product strategy, says Weingarten. This would give manufacturers an opportunity to reach more customers and provide what they really want. Several food makers have already approached him about this concept.
Fooducate has about 10 employees and is funded by several investors. “We are not sponsored or funded by the food industry in any way, and we certainly are not for sale,” Weingarten says.
“We want people to look at us as sort of the Good Housekeeping of healthy products, perhaps even developing a symbol of approval that can go on products showing that we gave them high marks. Just like the food companies want to work with us, we want to work with them to help them develop healthier products. We believe that we can be that ‘third eye’ keeping tabs on things, to enable more people to eat a better, healthier diet.”