Photo Courtesy: U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Nutrition Service (FNS) helps educate shoppers about the value of food labeling in December 1975. Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.


You walk into your favorite
local coffee shop. As soon as the barista sees you, he or she already knows
your special coffee order and gets it started for you. This is a case of
personalized and tailored service that most of us love to have.

Why can’t we have that type
of a personalized service when we go for grocery shopping? Wouldn’t it be great
to have a person, tool or system that understands our nutrition and health
needs and also has a sense of our values in terms of how we want our food
grown, made, transported and sold? What should such a system look like?

For a health and nutrition
information system to help shoppers in their decision making process it should
satisfy the following six criteria:

Simple: It
should be simple to understand. A shopper should be able to make a quick
decision about putting the item in their shopping cart (real or online).

Reliable: It
should be reliable, accurate and help a consumer make an informed decision.

It should be independent and should not be controlled by interested parties
like brands, food manufacturers or retailers.

The nutrition information should be easily accessible to shoppers in store
(real or online), at home and on the go as well.

It should be comprehensive across two dimensions. First, it should be
applicable and accessible for a wide variety of products that a typical shopper
considers on a day-to-day basis. If it works for only 10% of your pantry it is
not very useful. Second, it should be able to look at all the ingredients in a
product including any growing, processing and business practice information
(e.g. non-GMO, organic, fair-trade, sustainable etc.) that a typical shopper uses
for making decisions.

One of the most important aspects of such a system is that it should be
personalized. Nutrition and health are areas that definitely do not confirm to
the one-diet fits all metaphor.

According to
Dr. Christopher Gardener, associate professor of medicine at Stanford’s
Prevention Research Center, "For decades we've been asking the wrong question.
"It's not 'What's the best diet?' It's 'What's the best diet for each
unique person?' "

A nutrition information
system should be able to recognize the unique needs of each and every
individual shopper and then personalize the information to that particular
individual’s unique needs.

There are a large number of
nutrition information and rating systems out there, but there are very few
systems that score high on all the six dimensions mentioned above.

The standard nutrition panel is
a good starting point but it is not very easy to use and fails miserably along
the personalization dimension. It also completely ignores different value
systems that people use when they consider food products.

NuVal does a good job of providing a simple, reliable and
independent rating but it is not easily accessible outside the store, is not
available for a large number of products and most importantly it still follows
the one-diet fits all non-personal approach.

GMA and FMI led food and beverage industry initiative "Facts Up Front" is a simple and easy-to-use labeling system that displays key
nutrition information on the front of food and beverage packages.” This system
scores well on improving the simplicity of the nutrition panel information by
focusing on the important nutritional attributes, but it still follows a
non-personal approach.

shoppers and consumers we need a system that scores relatively high on all the
six dimensions mentioned above. Most importantly, we want a system that treats
us as individuals and understands our unique needs.

one man’s meat can be another man’s poison (or if you are vegetarian, one man’s
tofu can be another man’s poison)!



Rhishi Pethe is the Director of Product Marketing at ShopWell. He is a foodie and wants to use data to make the world a better place to eat.