A Food Site That Aims to Quantify Healthy Eating

Photograph by Jackie Alpers/Getty Images

The folks over at iFood.tv are no longer just proffering up cooking videos and recipes. They have decided to tackle the huge and crowded market for online nutritional data. IFood.tv founders Alok Ranjan and Vikrant Mathur have launched a nutritional search engine and database called NutritionRank with the rather ambitious goal of making it the Web’s top repository of dietary health information.

The Web is brimming over with nutritional resources and databases that let you parse any nutritional measurement. Dieting and fitness apps are crowding one another in mobile app stores. Food search engine Yummly has already built up a big online following by allowing home cooks to search for recipes by cholesterol, fat, and carb content. Even Google has gotten into the game with a calorie-counting recipe search feature.

But according to Ranjan, all of those numerous and varied services are all regurgitating the same U.S. Department of Agriculture data. NutritionRank will distinguish itself by adding a layer of valuable context on top of these data. As its name implies, the search engine is going to rank all the foods we eat.

NutritionRank has worked with three nutritional scientists to create an algorithm that assigns a value from zero (being the worst) to 100 for any individual food ingredient, recipe, packaged food item, or restaurant dish. As long as there is raw nutritional or ingredient info available about an item, the algorithm can tackle it, crunching the ingredient list of an online recipe or the government-mandated nutrition info on the back of a box of pasta.

“We’ve created a good comparator of different foods,” said Atul Kumar, a gastroenterologist and Stony Brook University Hospital professor who helped NutritionRank develop its methodology.

NutrionRank.com allows you to compare foods side by side. For instance, you can compare a Burger King cheeseburger to McDonald’s Big Mac, or either to an apple. Or you can look up the healthiness of your favorite foods. That blue box of mac and cheese we loved so much as kids and many of us still love now? The NutritionRank of its cheese topping is zero, though to be fair to Kraft some of its specialty mac and cheese brands have much better rankings. A bundle of fresh basil has a rank of 100.

The company’s nutritionists and data scientists compile the ranks by comparing multiple variables—from grams of fat to levels of vitamins—to paint a broad picture of the overall healthiness of a dish. The ranks aren’t geared toward a particular dietary goal, such as weight loss or
cholesterol reduction, but in general the higher-ranked dishes are less fatty, emphasize “good” cholesterol over “bad,” and have a higher level of key nutrients. Thus a high-fat-content item like an avocado ranks extremely high while hydrogenated oils score the lowest.

Right now NutritionRank’s database is focused on packaged foods and big chain restaurant dishes for which dietary information is readily available. But the company plans to expand the breadth of food items it covers as it expands its business model. Ranjan said while the search engine is a valuable resource, the true value of its rankings will be realized once they proliferate beyond the NutritionRank.com portal.

It wants Google and Yummly to search by its ranking system. It wants recipe sites and food brands to invite NutritionRank to parse their dishes and display their ranks on their Web pages. It wants popular food destinations on the Web like the Food Network to embed its nutrition search bar in their sites. Ranjan and Mathur are getting the ball rolling by ranking many of the recipes within their own culinary site, iFood.tv.

NutritionRank is making its API available to anyone for free. So how will it make money? Ranjan said he plans to implement a kind of AdWords for healthy eating. Just as Google displays sponsored search results at the top of every query page, NutritionRank will deliver paid results at the top of all search pages.

That may seem counterproductive to the company’s core mission of recommending the healthiest food. But Ranjan doesn’t see a conflict. He pointed out that even sponsored results will always include rankings, so any advertiser trying to promote unhealthy food would look a bit foolish. On the other hand a company like Kraft might use sponsored results of a “mac and cheese” search to promote its healthier alternatives to the famous blue box.

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