The blog Fooducate, which was founded in 2008 to investigate the food industry, has its roots in an ordinary visit to the supermarket.
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Israeli entrepreneur Hemi Weingarten had recently sold MDRM, a memory flash card company he helped found, to the multinational data storage company SanDisk and moved from Israel to California with his wife and kids.
"The encounter with American food wasn't particularly joyous," says Weingarten about his acclimatization period in the United States. One day, his wife returned from the supermarket with glow-in-the-dark yogurt.
"That led me to read the list of ingredients for the first time in my life," continues Weingarten. "I discovered that the ingredient red 40 is likely to cause hyperactivity in children.
He added, "I didn't understand why this ingredient was banned for use in Europe but was permitted for use in the U.S."
"It bothered me that as a consumer I didn't know what was in my food. The blog came from the desire to educate people about food. I saw that the food industry is optimized to earn large profits and use low cost raw materials and manufacturing processes," says Weingarten.
As the blog gained traction, Weingarten began to see the business potential in creating tools to help people make informed decisions about the food they purchase. Eventually, he returned to Israel and met with Oren Butchmits and Hagai Meranda, both former employees of Partner Communications (which operates under the brand name Orange in Israel).
After raising just under a million dollars from private investors, the three men teamed up to turn Fooducate into a company in 2010. They saw an opportunity to combine Weingartern's idea with a new piece of technology, the iPhone, which had taken the world by storm in 2007.
Fooducate lets people scan food on the shelves of supermarkets to help them make healthy decisions. The app automatically assigns a letter grade from A to D to scanned food products and suggests healthier alternatives. It also displays concise bullet-point explanations to help users understand why a product received the grade it did.
Fooducate's app is available for both iOS and Android mobile devices and can be used at all supermarket retail chains in the U.S. The app has already been downloaded millions of times and is used by hundreds of thousands of users every week. It is also integrated into RedLaser, Ebay's shopping app, which has been downloaded 20 million times.
The first challenge in developing the app was creating a scanner good enough to recognize supermarket bar codes using a smartphone camera, says Weingarten. Then, he says, the company had to develop a large database of information about food products. Today, there are over 200,000 products in the database, and users can photograph missing products to request that they be added.
Fooducate is available for free with advertisements or for $3.99 without them. There is also a premium version that costs $4.99 and provides warnings to people who suffer from allergies to ingredients like gluten, peanuts or dairy. The company is working in cooperation with one of the world's largest drug companies on another version of the app for diabetes' sufferers. It is also cooperating with insurance companies that are interested in giving their insurance policy holders tools to increase their longevity.
About two months after Fooducate's app launched in January 2011, Fooducate visited Apple's campus in Cupertino, California, and Apple representatives decided to feature the app in iPhone advertisements. At the end of 2011, Fooducate was chosen as Apple's health app of the year. And in 2012, Fooducate won first place in the nutrition/healthy eating category of the United States Surgeon General's healthy apps challenge.
Looking ahead, Weingarten hopes to see Fooducate's nutritional grades listed alongside the products on supermarket shelves or on their packaging. The company is also interested in expanding the app to include information about products from fast-food chains like McDonald's. The next step in Fooducate's plan to take over the nutritional world is to move into large Western European markets and other English-speaking countries.