Putting a filter on food choices
September 29 2009
by Allison Sebolt
The sight of a consumer walking down a grocery aisle with an electronic handheld device carefully checking information and doing research on different food products might sound futuristic, but it’s already a reality. It is possible through the GoodGuide system.
The GoodGuide system was developed by Dara O’Rourke as a way of rating various products based on health, environmental and social impacts. Mr. O’Rourke, a professor of environmental and labor policy at the University of California at Berkeley, said there has been a rapid growth of consumer interest in information related to the health performance, supply chain and potential contaminate issues related to consumer packaged goods products. He said there also has been interest in the social and environmental impacts of food products.
"For us as researchers, (there was) a surprisingly rapid movement in interest among the public, moving way beyond organics," Mr. O’Rourke said.
He said much of the interest has been driven by various scandals in the food industry. As a result, consumers already are educating themselves about the products they buy and wanting this information, so the consumer desire for the system has been well established.
The GoodGuide system launched last September with personal care products and then moved into household chemical products. The system expanded to include food during the spring. The program now has information about more than 50,000 personal care, household chemical, toy and food products.
The program is available for free on www.goodguide.com or through a recently-launched iPhone application.
In the past consumers largely have depended on the food companies to provide background information on their products, Mr. O’Rourke said. Yet due to increased skepticism and cynicism, this is no longer the case.
"There is a major shift in the market from people depending on companies to tell them about the product to consumers looking for independent information and searching on-line," Mr. O’Rourke said. "There is really a shift in how people get this information now and what they trust."
He said the GoodGuide researchers have established what matters the most to consumers and developed what Mr. O’Rourke calls the product ontology. To develop a rating based on a 1 to 10 scale with 10 being the best, GoodGuide researchers give each food product a score in health, environment and social categories and combine these for an overall rating.
For the health score, they start analyzing the baseline nutrition information by using a ratio of recommended to restricted nutrients. Thresholds of nutrients of concerns such as sugar, saturated fat and cholesterol are then taken into account followed by ingredients of concern, which are then taken into account after that. Ingredients of concern includes consideration such as if the product contains artificial colors that are being phased out in other countries.
Next in the rating process GoodGuide factors what it calls an environmental lifecycle assessment. This is designed to assess the overall impact of the product across the lifecycle from where the food was grown to the processing, manufacturing and final use phases. How far the product had to travel is yet another consideration. This all keeps in mind the impacts on energy, global warming, water, land and air.
The third and final rating category — social performance — takes into account aspects such as the salary of the company’s chief executive officer, labor and human rights practices, diversity policies and working conditions. It also considers the impact on consumers and communities and factors information on corporate governance, disclosure policies and overall practices.
While Mr. O’Rurke said GoodGuide has a well-developed structure system for the ratings, he said they are always working to improve the system.
"We are constantly refining our algorithms as science gets better and as companies disclose more information," he said. "We are tuning our algorithms to make them more and more accurate."
He said their overall research is based on two areas — what matters scientifically and what matters most to consumers.
GoodGuide recently established a search feature to allow consumers to personalize what they are looking for in products with the long-term goal of allowing consumers to set up an individual filter based on specific needs. For example, someone looking for only low-sodium products would be able to ask the system to only show products within that category. In the future, they hope to expand this to allow consumers to weight and prioritize different concerns depending on what concerns matter the most and least to the individual.
"We want to provide information to consumers to let them choose which things they care most about and which things they want to buy,"
Mr. O’Rourke said. "(We want to) give them enough information to make better decisions in the marketplace."
Mr. O’Rourke said there have been some surprises when creating the system. For instance, he said organic products may or may not have a higher overall rating as there are trade-offs in organic versus conventional. Organic milk, for example, has a big impact on the land, so its score is lower in that specific area but might be higher in other areas.
Currently, most consumers find the site through Google. For categories other than food that are sold more predominantly on Amazon.com, GoodGuide has a high conversion rate, which means consumers are purchasing based on the information they are receiving. While primarily intended for consumers, the company is also in dialogue with a number of large food manufacturers who hope to benefit from it as well.
Not only is GoodGuide adding more food products to expand its base, but there are plans to add entire new product categories, including electronics and apparel.
Mr. O’Rourke said GoodGuide is different from other certifications in that the program is designed as a third-party rating and is a rating system not developed by a particular grocery store chain or other entity in the food industry.
"We are not trying to create a single certification," Mr. O’Rourke said. "We’re trying to create a platform for transparency in the food supply chain."