Why Carrot All?

Emily Schuitema, Ben Schechter, Eliana Herman, Alexandra Peirce 

Project Title (10 words): Why Carrot All?

Requested Amount (as in $): $10,000

Expected Amount of time to complete project: 6 months

Describe your project (500 words): Our project is to make an app that informs consumers of the effect the ingredients in the food they are purchasing really have on their health and bodies. This app would focus specifically on processed snack-type foods and TV dinners, which are becoming more popular in our culture, which takes little time to prepare food. It would work by having the consumer take a photo of the ingredients list on the product’s package. The technology that is already built into the phone– the camera– would be utilized here (the initial version of this app would be solely for iPhone, however if successful we would also want to develop an Android version). Then the app would analyze the ingredients and separate them into two sections; either harmless or harmful, with clickable links to the ingredients in these sections. The harmful section would be presented above the harmless section, because it includes information that is pertinent to the consumer while they are shopping.

After clicking on an ingredient, the user would be taken to a new page that in layman’s terms explains the harmful aspects of the product (is it carcinogenic? is it used to bond plastic? is it highly addictive? etc.) If the ingredient is harmless, the new page would simply explain what purpose the ingredient plays in the product. We are including harmless ingredients in our app because we believe people should know as much about what they are putting into their bodies as possible. Consumers would also be able to click on the harmless ingredients in order to learn the role those ingredients play in the food. The app would also give information about other uses of the chemical. For example, according to the Environmental Working Group in 2014, the chemical azodicarbonamide, that was used in Subway bread, was also used in the production of plastics, like yoga mats and flip flops.  (premium users would receive this information in a push notification, see below). This information would be readily accessible to users of our app.

Consumers also would be able to personalize the app. After initially downloading the app, users would take a brief survey that takes information like age, gender, weight, race and customizes the app so that ingredients that are specifically harmful to a user (because of the above information) would appear at the top of the harmful list. For example, a 22 year old woman would be able to customize the app so that ingredients that are specifically harmful to young women would show up higher on the list of harmful ingredients (specifically chemicals that affect reproductive health). Similarly, a family shopping for young children could personalize the app for harmful ingredients that affect brain/physical development.

The premium version of our app that costs .99 cents would include push notifications that notify users of breaking information in the news about chemicals and other additives in foods. For example, if a chemical in a variety of popular foods was found to be carcinogenic or harmful in another way, users of our app would have access to this information right away.

What unmet need does your project meet? (200 words):

Even though ingredients are listed on the packages of items you buy at the grocery store, what you’re truly eating can be hard to interpret. Based on our interviews, we have found that consumers do not know what chemical ingredients in food are or mean, let alone the effect they can have on our health and bodies. People want to be healthy/treat their bodies well but if they do not know what ingredients mean they are less likely to make well-informed choices about what is going into their bodies. Our app would take away some of the uncertainty. It also meets the unmet need of having this knowledge right away. It is possible to buy something, then go home and look up the ingredients, but it isn’t as easy to know exactly what the ingredients are in the store before you buy it. Our app would allow the user to save money and the trouble of taking something home, then deciding they don’t want it.

Interview four potential users of your project about this unmet need. Do not tell them your idea, just explore their need. What did you learn? Include names and contact info and a few words describing each– age, gender, occupation, town of residence. Go for variety. (200 words) For this I was thinking we could each interview one person.:

Chaghig Demirjian is a 19 year old female student at the Ross School of Business, originally from Aleppo, Syria. She tries to cook healthy meals, but most of the time she is too busy and buys frozen meals instead. When she makes decisions at the grocery store she doesn’t always know what the nutrition labels mean since english is not her first language. “Sometimes a lot of chemicals are hard for me to know, even some common ones that most Americans would know.” (cdemi@umich.edu)

Judy Herman is a 52 year old lawyer from West Bloomfield, MI. She is the primary grocery shopper for her family of four. Herman has a misconception about chemicals and preservatives that our app could solve, “Some things naturally have preservatives and chemicals in them, and need to have them. It’s a fact of life. It doesn’t offend me” said Herman. This app could open the middle aged generation’s eyes to the harm that comes from certain additives. (bjenherman@aol.com)

Kim Frauhammer is a 20 year old junior at the University of Michigan. She has lived in Ann Arbor her whole life, and is in the College of Engineering. When she goes to the grocery store, there are always a few things that she tries to buy organic, eggs and grapes being two of those items. However, she admits to not knowing what truly makes them organic. She also says that it can be hard to tell which ones are organic and which aren’t; the packages can be deceiving. (kimfrau@umich.edu)

Edward Young is a 22 year old fifth year senior at the University of Michigan. He lived East Lansing his whole life prior to moving to Ann Arbor for school. He’s an Industrial Operations Engineering major. Ed knows the difference between his healthy food and unhealthy food, and chooses to buy whatever is the cheapest. To him, everything at Whole Foods is deceiving. The names can include an array of ‘healthy’ connotations and he would usually buy whatever is cheapest. The price tag is what matters to Edward, more so than the ingredients. (youngedw@umich.edu)

How big is the potential market for your idea? Mention sources for any statistics you use. (100 words):

According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61% of the groceries Americans buy are highly processed. Processed foods contain many chemical additives used to preserve the shelf life of the food, add taste, and and color the food. The potential market for our product is the majority of grocery shoppers in the US who buy processed foods, but want to monitor the chemical additives they are eating. The 2014 Food Marketing Institute US Grocery Shopping Trends Study showed that one in four grocery shoppers prefer products with ingredients they recognize.

How is your idea innovative– new or different from something already existing? Name your closest competitors (200 words):

TellSpec would be one of our competitors. It is a hand-held device that connects to your smart phone, and you can physically scan your food and see what ingredients are in the food. It also talks about allergies and chemicals. Our idea is different from this because it is something you can scan directly in the store; you don’t have to spend money and buy the food item, take it home, and unwrap it to see the true nutrition information.

Another one of our competitors would be the Fooducate app. This app is similar to our idea in the regard that you can scan the barcode on the packaging and see exactly what is in the food. However, Fooducate is much more focused on weight loss and diet tips. Our idea is to have an app that fully explains all ingredients in the product in a simple way without focusing on the weight loss. It is about the dangerous chemicals and additives in the food as opposed to carbs, calories, and other nutrition information you would focus on for weight loss.

The Chemical Maze App and Book is also a close competitor, it gives information about additives in foods and cosmetics, but it costs $6.99, and our app would be free. Also it only focuses on food so it is more specific than the Chemical Maze.

How will your idea be financially sustainable? (150 words):

We were thinking that we would have a free download for the app. However, we think that we could get sponsors to support the app. We believe that companies that want to advertise their food as being free of harmful chemicals and additives would be willing to pay to have their company name associated with the app. Our app could have pop-up advertisements that companies can buy, and users will see the advertisements when they’re using the app. For users who don’t want to see the advertisements, they could buy a premium version of the app for a higher price. The premium version would have more features than just ad-free as well.

Why are you and your team the right people to develop this project? (100 words):

We are a group of people who are passionate about food, but are also passionate about health. All of us see a problem with how food information is presented. Even when ingredients are listed on the back of a package, it isn’t obvious what the true health effects of the ingredients are. We believe that there needs to be transparency between the food companies and the people. All of us are college students, and consequently we have a connection with a young generation who are just starting out with buying food for themselves for the first time.

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6 Responses to “Why Carrot All?”

  1. This is a really great idea! I know that I’ve looked at an ingredient label and wondered what several of the ingredients really are and I’ve always just dismissed them as “probably not a big deal”. This app would definitely allow people to make more informed choices about their food consumption.

    One of my suggestions is that the app would include a list of alternatives to a food item that a consumer may not want to purchase due to detrimental health effects – this would also be a good way to promote advertisers, although you’d have to be picky about who you let advertise. I also think it would be useful if the app offered alternatives that were similar or not much higher in cost.

    Lastly, I think that the app should be designed in a way that people can look at it quickly and absorb all the information they need. It’s unlikely that a grocery shopper would be able to spend a few minutes scrolling through the app with each product they buy, so they should be able to understand the health concerns or lack thereof in the food item with a brief glance.

  2. I can’t help but agree with one of your interviewees, Judy Herman, that some foods do have natural additives in them. One of my main concerns when reading about your app is that it’s a little black-and-white in terms of what’s harmful vs harmless and might fail to address that gray area. Just for an example, your app might characterize sugar as being a harmful ingredient when plenty of fruits and vegetables have natural sugars, something the human body needs. While I love this idea because it does seek to educate (and I’m definitely one of those people who should know more about the foods I’m eating) perhaps your app paints an oversimplified view of these issues. What would you say to someone who believes everything is harmless so long as you consume it in moderation?

  3. I really like the idea of this app, I am currently in a nutrition class and this app directly relates to some of the problems we have been discussing and could possibly be a great solution to these issues.

    However, I am wondering how big your potential audience might be. For example, I think that most of the people who consume heavily processed snacks and TV dinners may be people who really do not care about what they are putting into their body and just like the taste. I’m not sure if these types of people would care enough to download an app and scan their groceries. Maybe you could find someway to educate and inform others of how harmful certain ingredients might be to intrigue them to actually check out what they are eating.

    I think people who would probably download an app like this are people who really care about what they are consuming, and they are less likely to be eating processed foods. Maybe not just focusing on heavily processed foods and incorporating other items might help expand your market.

    Overall though, I really like the simplicity and helpfulness of this app, I just think these are someways to increase your potential audience.

  4. I think a service like this fills a very important niche and is certainly timely. I would be very interested in using an app that reliably tells me the health impacts of the processed food I’m eating. The name is 10/10, and never underestimate the power of a catchy title!

    However, as a chemist, this is an issue that’s near and dear to my heart. I also agree with Judy Herman and was surprised to see her opinion labeled in your proposal as a misconception. Rhetoric on this subject often goes along the lines of “chemical XYZ is used in fracking liquid, gross!” and that’s used as a criterion to have it excluded from processed foods. The reality is that chemicals are often multifunctional and such rhetoric is just inaccurate. Guar gum, a critical component of fracking liquid, is sold at my hippie grocery store for $7/lb as a gluten-free, vegan baking product. Concentration and method of delivery (e.g. inhalation vs. ingestion) matter a lot.

    I certainly don’t want to be an apologist for the food industry – I’m just trying to say that I think it’s really important to draw from established nutritional information on this proposal rather than analogies. If you could do that – comb through the complex and confusing scientific literature and offer reliable, clear data to consumers, that’s huge. What about cases where the data is contested, or when there is no data at all?

    I agree with Sanjana that presenting the results concisely will be a challenge.

    I’m also excited about the possibility of expanding this proposal to cookware, tupperware, and other stuff that comes into contact with food. Plastics leach BPA, and non-stick pans can release by-products of Teflon that basically stay in the body forever. Your app could really break ground by looking into those kinds of questions as well – what’s the point in cooking a meal with 100% healthy food if I’m going to store it in a container that’s poisoning me?

    Sorry for the long comment, but I’m really excited about what this could do for consumers if your team could execute it in the right way. I think this idea is great.

  5. Hi, Emily, Ben, Eliana and Ally. Very interesting idea! I especially appreciate the way you have clearly told us how your idea is different from near competitors.

    It’s great that your post has attracted a lot of very helpful comments. It would be good for you to be prepared to answer questions from the judges about the points raised in these comments.

    In addition, you might want to consider the advertising model a little more deeply. It’s not working very well for other news-ish apps. Also, I worry that very few potential advertisers would have completely “clean” products. How would you handle financial pressure to promote these products anyway, or downplay the potential health effects of the preservative chemicals used in an advertiser’s product?

    If you go forward with this idea in some form, and I hope you do, you might want to consult with a lawyer about how to handle complaints from companies alleging that you’re damaging their products by labeling them as “unhealthy.” I agree with the many comments pointing out, essentially, that in many cases the dose makes the poison. Some ingredients are unhealthy in large doses but not in smaller doses. For example, salt, probably one of the most common food ingredients.

    Overall, I like this idea. There seems to be a market for it. So, great job so far!

  6. First off, I really like your idea! I think that it is very relevant to today’s food industry and I believe that many people would like to utilize an app like this. That being said, I think there might be a problem with having companies fund this type of project. Many of the sponsorships that you would be seeking funding from would most likely have many products (if not all) that contain some type of bad ingredient. I am guessing they would not be too thrilled about endorsing an app that wants to expose these shortcoming. Although it might be possible to find sponsors whose food is “clean” of these toxic chemical and additives, they might be smaller companies and organizations and might not have the same available funds to support such an effort. That being said, maybe there are other avenues you could look to for support in funding this type of project? Whether that be through a grant, healthy food initiative, or maybe research opportunity through a university, I am sure there are some available outlets you could tap into for funding without directly going to the food companies. If the app does become a hit, however, and a healthier food movement of some sorts does ensue, perhaps reaching out to the food companies then would be more successful and you would see food companies “jumping on the healthy food bandwagon,” so to speak, to ensure their company’s viability in the new market. That all being said, good luck on your project! I am looking forward to seeing your pitch come April.

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