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'Daddy, Is This Good for Me?'

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Having a Dear Friend Over for Dinner

Imagine you are hosting a person you really care about at your home for dinner. Would you intentionally serve this person a meal that would compromise his health and well-being? Probably not. Next ask yourself: "What if I'm doing exactly that unintentionally to my loved ones and myself?"

This very question served as a wake-up call for me personally a little bit over a year ago, when my daughter Lee, who was 15 at the time, decided that she wanted to lose some weight. Lee started researching "weight loss" online and decided that as a first step in her diet she needed to start selecting healthier products in the store. Whenever she would pick up a food item from the shelf in the supermarket she would do her best to diligently study the list of nutrients and ingredients on the label and compare the labels of several products on the shelf. After several futile attempts, Lee realized that it is quite difficult to identify the healthiest food items. This was when she decided to involve me in the process. Whenever we would go to the supermarket, Lee would pick up a product she fancied from the shelf, hand it over to me and ask, with an expression of absolute trust on her face, "Daddy, is this good for me?"

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Making the Information "Universally Accessible and Useful"?

As I was struggling to help Lee with label reading, I realized that besides this being an extremely time-consuming process, I actually knew very little about the nutrients and ingredients in the food my family eats. While I knew about some of the unhealthy ingredients, such as partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil and high-fructose corn syrup, I knew nothing about the more obscure and yet also hazardous ingredients, such as sodium nitrate, cyclamate, orange B and potassium bromate. These insidious ingredients were conveniently concealed among many other mostly-benign or less-hazardous ingredients with fancy names, such as acetylated monoglycerides, ammonium bicarbonate and ascorbyl palmitate.

Furthermore, reading lists of sometimes as many as 50 ingredients all written in an extremely small font, and deciphering which are healthy, benign or dangerous, gave me a headache -- literally. This was when I thought to myself that since we are living in the day and age shaped by Google's mission to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," there must be a way to access the label information online. So I spent the next couple of weeks searching for such a database. I Googled, posted questions on social sites such as Quora, researched the government sites, all to no avail. The closest database I found was the USDA nutritional database; however, I quickly realized that it does not provide manufacturer and product specific information, which is represented by a UPC (Universal Product Code). The USDA only offers nutrient information on generic products, such as "low-fat milk" and does not include any data on ingredients.

The Reality

There must be a mistake, I thought; after all, isn't the purpose of having labels to empower consumers to understand what is in their food and make healthier nutritional choices? If it is impractical to use the labels effectively in the store, as Lee and I realized from our personal experience, wouldn't it make sense to make this data universally accessible online so it can actually be useful?

Fast forwarding to December 2012, to the best of my knowledge there is still no publicly available and accessible repository of label information. Fortunately, there are several Web and mobile services today that offer analysis of label information and recommendations for healthier alternatives. Still, even though the databases of products supported by these services are growing over time, they fall short of providing a universal support for all the products in supermarkets.

I Have a Dream

Imagine a world in which there is a complete database with all the label information on each and every food and beverage product you could buy at grocery stores. Imagine that you can find -- at a glance -- which products are good for you and your family members. If you have a specific condition, such as Type 2 Diabetes or gluten intolerance, the recommendations are customized to your personal needs. Furthermore, imagine that healthier and delicious alternative products are recommended to you for each and every item you review. Once you select the healthiest and tastiest products, they are delivered to you at home at your convenience and at a best possible price. Furthermore, when you do decide to go to the store in person, a mobile app guides you to the location on the shelves of your selected grocery items. You can scan an item you want using a mobile app, and it will immediately provide you with personalized recommendations, offer healthier and tastier alternatives, and guide you to the place on the shelf where you can find the item. As an entrepreneur, I strive to make this dream a reality, and access to a complete label database would really help me and other entrepreneurs to realize this vision.

Conclusion

The lack of a publicly-accessible database of labels is inhibiting the innovation in the area of healthy nutrition and marginalizes the benefits of using labels by the consumers. I encourage readers to contact your elected officials and ask them to promote this concept. I also encourage Google to help organize the national and international label information and make it universally accessible, so that entrepreneurs, such as me, can help make it even more useful for consumers everywhere.

For more by Michael Segal, click here.

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