Sage Is On A Mission To Make Food Labels Smarter

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Less confusing, more personalized and interactive food labeling is the worthy mission of a just launched data visualization platform called Sage. The idea spun out of New York-based designer, developer and founder Sam Slover’s personal interest in healthier eating — and thesis on food tracking (in which he totted up the multiple thousands of ingredients he was ingesting from processed foods while still a student, pushing him towards eating more whole foods).

“There’s a big push for data transparency for a certain type of consumer. This tends to be people who care a lot about nutrition, people who care a lot about the environment, and then millennials — younger people seem to care a lot about this issue,” says Slover.

“The thing that we saw was that there’s a certain type of new brand in store — let’s say the Wholefoods type — that actually wants to communicate this sort of information to their customers. And they haven’t ever really had a good tool to do that.”

“The current food label, in pretty much every country, is just a data dump of information. All of the nutrition information is put on the packaging but with no real structure,” he adds, explaining why he thinks food labeling is ripe for upgrading.

Sage is a web app for now, with native iOS and Android apps in the works. It’s basically a database of (currently a “couple of thousand”) food products — built with the crowdsourced help of a team of nutritionists — that users can search to get clearer information about particular food products and individual food ingredients. Clearer thanks in no small part to Slover’s skills as a designer. He’s bootstrapped Sage’s development thus far with the help of some design competition winnings — but says he’ll be looking for a more sustainable source of funding in the future, whether that’s public support (given the scope of current political interest in food labeling and consumer health) or by taking the investor route.

The Sage platform shows visualizations of food product data, breaking out specific ingredients — such as additives and GMOs — to provider clearer indications of when individual products might be a cause for concern (or vice versa). Serving sizes can also be adjusted to more easily customize nutrition data to each individual’s diet. And personal factors such as allergies can be taken into account — to allow problem ingredients to be instantly flagged up.

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The platform can also map out where the food and its ingredients have come from geographically — interesting if you want to track ‘food miles’ to lower your carbon footprint.

Sage also lets users create visual collections of food products that might be useful for their specific dietary needs — sort of like Pinterest but with a tighter foodie focused, given the nutrition data inherent on the platform. Slover notes that beta users have created collections such as Diabetes Superfoods and Eating Well While Traveling, for instance.

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Sage is not currently offering a way to track your cumulative food/nutritionist intake, albeit that’s something Slover says is part of the “long-term vision”. “That will eventually involve tracking cumulative food intake too (and pulling out interesting insights). But, to do that, first we need to have lots of products in the system, which is why we’ve started with the first approach,” he says.

Building a community of food-conscious individuals is clearly front of mind. As is working with health-conscious food brands. Slover says he’s proritized adding non-processed basic food items, such as fruit and vegetables, to the database of food products powering Sage, followed by products from U.S. food brands Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s — which he reckons will mesh well with a health food conscious early adopter he’s expecting to take to Sage.

Food searches can be done by keyword or brand name (to foreground multiple products) but Slover says he’s eyeing computer vision as a possible route to making product food searches snappier on mobile. “It’s becoming more and more easy for your camera on your phone — you just take a picture, we know what it is, and then we can immediately show you a better label,” he adds.

While Sage is free to use, the aim is to build a business by monetizing down the line. The food consumption data itself is one option. But Slover also sees revenue generation opportunities by working with food retailers to augment the consumer’s shopping experience.

“There’s an interesting opportunity to innovate the in store shopping experience,” he tells TechCrunch. “It turns out there’s a lot of stores and a lot of brands who are thinking about how to give a new type of consumer a better in store shopping experience using new technology. If you think about how you use new technology in a grocery store right now it’s pretty much non-existent. So there is a lot of big brands and well known stores who are actively seeking for ways to give consumers a more unique and personalized experience when they’re shopping — now that everybody does have a computer in their pocket. So those are a lot of the conversations we’re having right now.”

Providing pertinent nutrition notifications to Sage users while they shop via a wearable device like the Apple Watch could be another future possibility. Sage’s incoming native mobile apps will display food label information via cards — a la Google Now.

“As people move more and more to getting bursts of information on things like an Apple Watch cards are the design approach I like for that,” adds Slover.