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DATA DETECTIVES

A Radical Reimagining of the Good Old Food Label

A New York student's graduate project proposes an alternative to the traditional FDA nutritional labeling: An open-source Wikipedia for food ingredients. Brands and stores might want to listen up.
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Graduate students aren't your typical poster children for healthy eating. But for 10 weeks this spring, a New York University master's student, Sam Slover, meticulously logged and tracked his grocery store purchases.

It was all in the name of an innovation that could fundamentally shift how consumers conceive of food labels--and how they access information about the origins of products on store shelves.

Slover's work on his master's thesis was aimed at hacking and augmenting the Food and Drug Administration's nutrition labels--those crammed rectangular boxes on product packaging chocked with daily percentages of dietary fiber, saturated fat, and riboflavin. He wants to make them more consumer-friendly: easier to read, customizable, and with more information on whether products contain GMOs, their location origin, and how far ingredients traveled to reach the store shelf. He's calling it WrapGenius (not to be confused with the online lyrics-and-annotation database startup also based in New York City, Rap Genius).

Only that WrapGenius wouldn't replace the FDA's label of choice; instead, it would be a digital, easily accessible, additional source of information shoppers could pull up on their smartphones or in-store displays. 

"There's this interesting data visualization we look at every day when we go shopping, and it's the food label," Slover says. "I wanted to make it a digital thing based on transparent access to data. "


This might be the work of a graduate student in a public health program, or a professor publishing work in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Instead, the work comes from a recent graduate of New York University's prestigious--if self-consciously slightly wacky--Interactive Telecommunications Program.

The ITP is known for educating and employing as professors some of the top game designers of our time, as well as spawning genius artists, including Marina Zurkow, entrepreneurs, such as Dennis Crowley, the co-founder and CEO of foursquare, and folks perhaps best categorized with that so-vague-its-losing-meaning title of "thinkers," including Clay Shirky and Red Burns.

Slover debuted his research into his own grocery-shopping habits, and his thesis about information he would have liked to have when filling his cart at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods, at the school's end-of-year showcase of students' works. His peers debuted everything from a toilet-paper sensor to SMS users when a roll is running low to an interactive wall of 3D-printed moving phalluses

Slover's project not only reimagined the traditional nutrition label as something easier to read, and customize, but also his food tracking allowed him to find patterns in his own grocery purchases, and pinpoint behaviors he wanted to change.

"The sheer number of locations that goes into a single bag of groceries was shocking to me--it's 15 countries and 20 different locations on average for me," Slover says. "I want to change that, because that's not a behavior that can last forever."


He also says he, over time, was able to look at his own data and cut down on non-organic products he purchased, as well as products that contained genetically modified ingredients. He says he started using his own creation to fuel improvement.

"We have so many health trackers these days, but there's nothing to quantify and help you improve food choices in terms of their global impact," he says.

Slover, now 29 and equipped with his degree, is continuing work on WrapGenius, though he's uncertain what form (startup, nonprofit, or other organization) the project will take. He is certain he wants it to be a collaborative data-gathering effort. "It'll be open-source. Think of it as sort of a trusted Wikipedia for food," he says. 


Over the next year, he says he'll work on further developing his database, and integrate WrapGenius into various products and stores. 

"I'm kind of talking to a variety of food producers and stores," Slover says. "There is a certain kind of progressive brand that wants to make this information known to their consumers, and our goal is transparency to consumers."

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
Last updated: May 28, 2014

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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