|By David Halevi
Like the weather, lots of people talk about eating more healthfully, but Israel-born Hemi Weingarten, CEO of Fooducate, is one of the few actually doing something about it -- and getting recognition for his efforts. Recently, Apple chose Fooducate as the best iPhone health & fitness app in its App Store – plus it won an inaugural Flurry 2012 App Spotlight Award.
“It all started when my wife bought a yogurt for my kids, and on a whim I checked the ingredients. There I noticed a substance called Red No. 40, a food coloring that has been linked to hyperactivity in children. It's banned in some European countries and, in others, products that contain it require a warning label.”
After that, Weingarten said, he started getting very interested in food labels – and discovered quite a few ingredients that he decided weren't a good idea for his kids – or anyone – to ingest.
To warn the public, Weingarten – who was born in Israel and now divides his time between Tel Aviv and the San Francisco area – started a blog called Fooducate to tell folks the “real story” about what they were eating.
“I read literature and analyzed data – and was shocked to learn 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.”
But why stop at a blog? “I've always loved technology, so I said why not use technology to spread the word about eating healthier?” Thus was born the free Fooducate app, which has been downloaded over a million times in the year or so that it's been available for the iPhone and Android platform.
“The Fooducate app empowers supermarket shoppers to effortlessly choose healthier foods based on what’s really inside.”
Fooducate gives consumers the lowdown on just how good – or bad – the food they're eating really is. Shoppers who want to check a product use their smart phone's camera to focus on the product's barcode, which is then uploaded to Fooducate's servers. A database of more than 200,000 products sends back information about the ingredients, including any warning flags a consumer should be aware of.
Just point your smartphone at a product barcode
and a wealth of information comes back.
Using a unique algorithm, the app also “grades” the product based on its overall healthfulness. Shoppers can easily and clearly see what manufacturers don’t want them to notice, such as excessive sugar and sodium, trans fats, additives and preservatives, high-fructose corn syrup, controversial food colorings and much more. If the product scores poorly, Fooducate will offer healthier alternatives.
“So far, users have scanned over 10 million products, and it has changed eating habits for many people,” says Weingarten.
According to data Fooducate has collected, 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. And Fooducate isn't afraid to take on the “big boys” of the international food industry by issuing bad marks to companies whose products we use every day.
“The companies realize that they can't fool all the people all of the time – and that they can't stop the trend towards healthier eating,” Weingarten says. “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.”
It's a way for companies to “save face” with consumers and offer them healthier alternatives – and if enough customers change their minds and go for the healthier product, chances are companies will pick up on that and put more emphasis on healthier products.
“The food manufacturers will be able to use the data we gather about healthy choices, and use it for their product strategy,” says Weingarten. “Fooducate, for them, is not the 'enemy,' but an opportunity to reach more customers and give them what they really want.”
Several food makers have already approached him about ways to use the information Fooducate collects on their product to develop healthier products.
Fooducate has about 10 employees, with sales offices in California and a development center in Tel Aviv. Right now the company is funded by several investors and more are welcome to help the company grow in new directions over the coming year.
Weingarten stresses that a buyout by a big food manufacturer is out of the question. “We are not sponsored or funded by the food industry in any way, and we certainly are not for sale,” he says.
“We want people to look at us as sort of the Good Housekeeping of healthy products; we might even develop a symbol of approval that could go on products that we have given high marks. Just as the food companies want to work with us, we want to work with them to help them develop healthier products. The FDA is just not doing a good enough job of ensuring a nutritious food supply. We believe that we can be a 'third eye' keeping tabs on things, to enable more people to eat a better, healthier diet.”