As a vegetarian, I've never been told not to eat yogurt. But when I scanned the bar code on my afternoon snack with my iPhone, a "ding" and an alert told me that Dannon yogurt might not be suitable for vegetarians.
Developed in Durham, the mobile app, INRFood, goes beyond existing calorie-counting and label-reading apps to give users the full rundown on all of the ingredients in the food they're eating. As it turns out, Dannon yogurt contains gelatin, an animal byproduct that most vegetarians choose not to consume. Since I'd told the app that I eat a vegetarian diet, it did me the favor of warning me that I might not be interested in a little strawberry-banana yogurt after all. Additionally, the app told me that I should consume only in moderation the potassium sorbate, whey protein concentrate and cream that were also in the yogurt.
Through an ingredient search feature or by scanning the barcode of a food item with your smartphone's camera, the app will analyze the ingredients. It tells you which are healthy, which you should avoid and which you should eat in moderation by highlighting them in green, red and yellow, respectively. You can choose to view by list or by pie chart to see which ingredients you most often consume, and how your consumption of those ingredients compares to, say, last week. Tap an ingredient and you'll learn its function and health effects, and find links to related articles and videos presented by health professionals.
"Dieticians and nutritionists are some of the most undervalued professionals in the health care community," said INRFood founder and CEO Keval Mehta. He noted that our health-care system is far too reactive—treating conditions and disorders rather than trying to prevent them. By distilling the information presented by nutritionists, INRFood can help consumers be more proactive.
Mehta left the cardiology department at Duke to develop INRFood, hoping to revolutionize the way people eat. "The U.S. is the most nutritionally starving country in the world," he said. "Food has become 'food stuff,' not real food." By listing the ingredients in the "food stuff" we eat, Mehta hopes we'll begin to understand the effects the ingredients we can't pronounce have on our health, and he has my attention.
The merits of the app have been recognized elsewhere, too. The INRFood team was one of 30 young companies invited to the Startup Battlefield at the 2012 TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. The team won the Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina Health Innovation Challenge, and was named a 2013 Health Technology Finalist by SXSW.
A few hurdles stand between INRFood and a global revolution, though. Some products are not recognized by the app (such as Whole Foods Market's 365 brand); the ingredient search function doesn't allow you to account for portion size; and the app isn't helpful if you're dining out. As I see it, the app is full of great information about many of the ingredients I consume, and the allergen and dietary functions are helpful, but for now, it only answers the question "Is it OK for me to eat this?"
The INRFood development team hopes to answer more questions, such as "How's my diet? What should I eat today? Why do I have this lingering headache?"
By the summer, the app is expected to tell you what ingredients interact poorly with commonly used medications, and will have a "reverse symptom" feature to tell you what parts of your diet are causing that headache you've had all week. It is also expected to have a voice recognition feature so you can simply tell your phone, "I'm eating Honey Nut Cheerios with 2 percent milk." By next year, the app could give you information based on your dieting habits and family health history.
The app has been downloaded more than 25,000 times in the last three months, building a following as its utility increases. The team adds 100 products to the database each day, and is testing future versions of the app.
With time, Mehta hopes that INRFood will change the way people view their food. "We're a small startup trying to do something monumentally game-changing."
Ashley Alman is an intern at INDY Week.