Making Food Fit for the Web

I love to eat. I love data. And I love the web. But other than snarfing some chips while I surf the web, it’s difficult to combine my loves in a way that takes advantage of the power of our mobile devices, web services and the plethora of data available online. Food is the next frontier for mobile, big data and web services to change our lives, but in order to make that happen, we need open standards, or any kind of standards for identifying ingredients, importing recipes and tracking nutritional data.

Too Many Cooks in Different Kitchens

Meal Snap screenshot

Recently three different services have come together to make realize how crappy the online food experience is and what it could be. In San Francisco, I played with the Meal Snap application by Daily Burn on a friend’s phone and thought it was the coolest thing. You can use the app to snap a picture of your food and the app returns an estimate of how many calories it has. It’s simple, easy and fun in a way that counting calories isn’t.
The following week, my husband gave me a Fitbit (see disclosure) for my birthday. The device tracks my activity, sleep and offers an estimate for calories burned. For $99, it’s like a web-enabled pedometer. But it could be so much more. The site allows me to track my food intake and calories consumed using a decently-sized database, but it’s such a pain to go to the site and enter what I ate. What if I could snap a picture of my food and send it over? After all, I’m not a hardcore Fitbit user trying to use it to meet any real fitness goal; I’m just intrigued by data.
The final piece of this puzzle is the Food on the Table service (I said people should meet them during SXSW) which tracks grocery deals, allows me to submit my recipes, then delivers a meal plan that helps me use recipes to incorporate food that’s on sale. From there, I can generate my shopping list. I think it’s an extraordinarily disruptive service because it takes the act of applying data and technology to disrupt an industry, much like TiVo (s tivo) aggregated data on a variety of shows and channels, added a hard drive and changed the way people watch TV.

We Need a Catalyst

To make a TiVo-like revolution possible, computers need to recognize food and ingredients via some kind of open data standard and we need a catalyst to force grocery stores, packaged goods companies and other food suppliers to get on board. Food on the Table is trying to build this out in part. It has added recipe-reading technology that allows me to submit my own recipes to the site and hopes to make that process scalable through building a food database and recipe standard (right now it takes a few days and involves manual labor).

Can we make the Fitbit a TIVo-like experience?

But Google (s goog) has started too, with its Google Recipe View product launched in February, which allows people to find recipes from around the web via ingredients. But a deeper understanding is necessary to build services and apps that can really help make meals easier. For example, we need a way for the computers to recognize the words chicken legs in all its variations — drumstick, dark mean chicken, etc.– and then have the entire industry, from Tyson to Safeway to Gourmet magazine using such an open standard.
But as Steve Sanderson, VP product development at Food on the Table, says, “These are not technically savvy industries.” Plus some such as Gourmet are actively hostile to the idea of sharing such data because it upends its business model. Grocery stores and food producers don’t have an incentive to make an effort unless it sells more of their products or somehow increases efficiencies to boosts already-small margins.
Well, if we can’t get Walmart (s wmt) involved, what about the government? A fitness-crazy friend was gung-ho about the idea of open food and nutritional standards to track calories, ingredients and recipes. He suggested the FDA or the U.S. Department of Agriculture could get involved. The USDA already is responsible for tracking food and setting its nutritional content for a national database, and Sanderson says some companies already use that information in their products.

What if They Can’t Handle the Heat?

Daily Burn CEO Andy Smith took an opposite approach, and said I was pretty crazy for wanting to make it easy to build out a way to translate food for the web. “Food is really complex, and in a sense it feels very difficult to do something like you said at a really useful level,” Smith said. “The market is still fragmented and people want to own it, and everybody wants to own their piece.”
He said perhaps if Google (s goog) or some other entity really wanted to drive adoption it might work, but he thinks anything that open is still several years, if not a decade, away. First, we have to move through a proprietary stage whereby platform players try to keep users locked into their devices or web services by holding their data captive as a means to get people to pay for subscriptions.
At the end of chatting with everyone, I’m leery of the government getting involved (but not terribly worried that it will), incredibly worried that Smith’s cynicism is the most accurate picture, and desperately hoping a company like Google or Food on the Table can help drive consumers to demand open data for their food, their recipes and their other health data. The market is still huge. After all, everybody has to eat, and most of us wouldn’t mind a technical assist in our meal planning and calorie tracking.
Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.
Image courtesy of Flickr user gabriel amadeus.