Considering that our quality of life depends so much upon the health of our body, and that the health of our body depends so much upon what we eat and drink, is anyone really paying enough attention to their diet? I thought that I was doing a reasonably good job until I learned how much better I could do with the help of the INRFOOD health and nutrition app.
INRFOOD’s mobile application lets us know as much about what we’re eating as we could ever hope for. Scan the bar code of an item on the grocery shelf or search for products you’re thinking about eating, and INRFOOD will tell you what ingredients are inside. Not only that, it will tell you what those ingredients mean for your body. What’s more, if you have health problems, allergies, or other dietary concerns, INRFOOD can warn you before ingesting any harmful elements.
Studies show that low levels of exposure to lawn pesticide products are linked to increased rates of miscarriage, and suppression of the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. INRFOOD is loaded with facts like these, news of recalls, recipes and more. Yes, some of the news is scary, but the potential to make healthier choices based on our individual chemistry is pretty amazing.
Founder Keval Mehta thought he would become a physician. Though he’s traveled the route of serial startup entrepreneur instead, he’s kept our health–and our pets’ health–at the heart of his projects. Grab a peach and bite into the Vitamin C rich information Mehta had to share with KillerStartups about his fascinating company.
What drew you to startup entrepreneurship?
I went down the road like many startup entrepreneurs–they see a problem they feel they need to fix. For me it was the health care problems that are going on. I felt that it was the right time, that adoption was going to occur soon considering that almost every other industry out there–whether it be energy, education, banking/ financial–everyone’s already had their technological revolution. We’ve got e-banking now, all these different systems that have occurred. But with health care, there’s quite a gauntlet in there for that to happen yet.
I started my first company about four years ago, which dealt with first aid and natural disaster preparedness. I worked on that for a little over a year. We successfully sold that to the world’s largest privately held first aid training organization. And now they’re implementing that technology in the military and for a whole bunch of other uses. And I started a second company that dealt with pet first aid. There really wasn’t any information out there about if something happens to your pet, what’s the first aid that you would give. I worked on that for about a year and then successfully sold that to the world’s largest pet first aid training organization. Now I’m on my third startup in four years, which has become the big behemoth, bigger than anything I’ve ever done in the past.
At the end of the day, understanding the food we eat is just a major problem, and we really want to bring insight. There’s a reason why the ingredient label is always a small font. They always say read the fine print of anything. On food, it’s the ingredients. So we really want to have people understand what they’re consuming.
You mentioned INRFOOD being a behemoth. How you manage such a large undertaking?
There’s actually two realms of INRFOOD, technically three. One is the core technology that powers everything. Then we have two main databases. We have a product database that has all these products out there. We’ve got just more than a quarter-million now. Within a year’s time we hope to have well over 1 to 1.5 million products in our database.
And we have our ingredient database, which right now numbers around 15,000 ingredients. You can search zebra on our database, and we’ll tell you the nutritional value of zebra. We’ve got over 189 different kinds of fish, over 140 different kinds of meat, 600 fruits (a quarter of which aren’t even available in the united States), well over 500 vegetables. The list goes on and on. And then we have the technology to bind it all together.
INRFOOD also offers an alert system based on medical and cultural alerts. So the medical alerts right now are if you’re pregnant, diabetic, if you have a heart condition, or the top seven allergies. You can select any one of those and INRFOOD will give you a warning if you scan a product that might not be suitable for a person with that medical concern. We also have cultural alerts. At the moment, we have vegan or vegetarian. In the future, we’ll expand the cultural warnings to include pescatarian and flexatarian.
A flexatarian is someone who eats meat but not red meat. Apparently, it was a new term coined last year by Webster’s. So we’ll also include halal and Kosher. We’ll be able to tell you if your food is halal or kosher. We’re working with both the Jewish Federation who handles the kosher, and then there’s the North American Islamic Group that handles the halal rating of food.
On the side of medical concerns, right now we have the ten–seven allergies and the three main ones. We’re actually going to add another 60–things like Crone’s disease alopecia. We’ve got big plans as far as expansion. We’ll be rolling them out slowly, and each one will be a 99 cent purchase. That’s kind of how we’re doing it. For example, if you have a sesame seed allergy, you can add enter it in there. That’s kind of how we’re looking at our revenue stream going down the road.
We’re also working on nutrition facts. I can’t talk about it right now, because it will be coming out in about five months and it’s still kind of hush hush, but we feel like we’ve come up with an innovative way to actually understand ingredients, what the actual composition of food is.
When someone looks at a food label, they see 200 calories, and 200 calories will mean something different to you than it would to me. For most people, 200 calories is just a number. So we’re working on an innovative way to actually personalize that number, so you will understand what 200 calories means based on your activities and what-not. Not only that, but there’ll be an application…through analytics we’ll learn what you consume, your age, ethnicity, location in the country, all that kind of stuff, and we’ll personalize your information. So for example if you’re pregnant–women generally have a low iron count–it will suggest that you have some spinach or something like that throughout the day. We’ll get smarter as we go along. That’s kind of our plan.
Obviously you’ve been acquiring a tremendous amount of food knowledge along the way. Are there any discoveries that have left a lasting impression?
One of the biggest is Red 40. Red 40 is a red, artificial food coloring dye. Most people don’t know that it’s made from petroleum, it’s a petroleum byproduct. It’s actually banned in 7 countries in Europe. Six require warning labels like with what we have from the Surgeon General for cigarettes. They require that kind of warning for any food that contains Red 40. Basically the warning states that it can cause hyperactivity in children. In the United States, it’s FDA approved. The FDA considers it GRAS, Generally Recognized As Safe. That’s one of the most amazing things to me. Another example of the things we’ve uncovered–mechanically separated chicken. You really wouldn’t have any idea what that is. Turns out it’s that pink slime you’ve heard about. That’s what it is.
The thing about the food industry is that they change their terminology left and right. Before, on packaging you used to see Trans Fat. Now that’s a big no no. They don’t like the name Trans Fat, so they changed it to partially-hydrogenated whatever. It’s still Trans Fat. One of the things that I’ve uncovered is the way the FDA–they really irk me a lot of the time… Zero sugar for example. If there’s less than .5 grams, they don’t have to write 1 gram, they can actually write 0. And it’s per serving, so there could be ten grams of sugar in something, but if they write 20 servings, they can write zero. It’s things like that that amaze me.
Not only that, there’s the research into the behavior of people. In the last 10 years, there’s been an increase in these diet, low-cal / no-cal products that have hit the market, but rates of obesity have actually tripled. So you have to wonder, if there’s this explosion in sales of all these diet products that were never there before, why is the obesity rate going through the roof? From our research, based on a lot of the ingredients, it’s sugars. There are certain sugars–we have 221 sugars in our database–and each one effects your glycemic level differently. Based on any medical concerns that you have, it can actually change your metabolism. Right now in the United States, 1 out of 8 people are diabetic or pre-diabetic, and that number is increasing.
When I was on rotation, I remember seeing 11 year-old kids on insulin… We’ve got a problem. There’s no amount of coordinated people to do one thing or another. If you’re in the food industry, you’re just going to create more diet products. I have friends that used to drink Coke and now drink Diet Coke. They’ll drink 3 Diet Cokes because it has zero sugar and zero calories, but they don’t understand all the aspects, like aspartame and what that can do to your body. Aspartame turns into formaldehyde in your stomach when it reacts with stomach acids.
We try to not always be doom and gloom. There are a lot of amazing foods out there. I hate saying moderation, but you want everyone to be thoughtful about what they eat. I figure the more we know… At the end of this project, my goal, the entire team’s goal, is showing that people can make a difference. We’re trying to make people understand that every single day when you spend your dollar to buy whatever you’re going to buy, you’re making a conscious vote in the food industry about what you want to consume.
If we can make you understand better, so that you can change your behavior on your own accord, you can cause ripple effects throughout the entire food industry. The example I always give is: if you have a 100 people in a town, and all 100 decide that they’re not going to drink Pepsi anymore because it has high-fructose corn syrup, then what ends up happening is that Pepsi will come in and be like, “What is going on? Why did our sales fall? Is it marketing, a competitor, pricing structure?” And when they do their research and find out that people aren’t consuming because of high-fructose corn syrup, they’re going to change their formula. That causes ripple effects, and that’s what we’re hoping for.
Has your own diet changed drastically?
Absolutely. I always thought that I ate healthy, eating Lean Cuisines and things like that. I’ve learned a lot. I don’t eat those anymore because of sodium and stuff. What’s amazing, our developer–you know usually developers don’t really care about what they eat, knocking back Red Bulls and stuff like that–they’ve changed.
We did an experiment. We figured we’d see if we really had something here. So we asked who could we find that would absolutely not care about what we’re talking about. So we went to elementary kids, because kids just want to know if it looks good, tastes good, if it’s sweet or salty. That’s what we want. Well, we thought, we’ll do what the food industry has been doing. We’ll market to kids. We’ll try the same thing. So we went to a couple local schools, a middle school, high school, and an elementary school.
The elementary school was the great test. We went to the school and talked about Red 40. We gave a whole presentation on fruits and vegetables. The thing we realized is that if you tell a kid to have two apples a day or a banana and add the whole why factor–we actually told them why a banana is good or why an apple is good or what is in an orange that makes it really good–when we did that, they perked up. They were like, “Wow, I want an orange.” Once we told them why.
The other thing we did is that when we talked about Red 40, we handed a candy out to all the kids, Jolly Ranchers or something like that. And at the end, we asked the class if anyone would eat Red40. And they were like, “No Way.” And I said, “What if I could guarantee you that you’ve all eaten Red40 before?” and they said it was impossible. And I told them that the candy I’d given them had Red40 in it, and it shocked them. What they wanted to do was to go home and look in the pantry at all their food.
Days later I got an email from one of the kid’s moms and she told me she was at the grocery store with her son, he’s probably 9 or ten years old, and everything she put in the cart he’s picked up and read it. So she picked up his favorite cereal, like Fruit Loops or something, and he picked it up then said, “Mom, we can’t buy this.” She asked why not and he tells her that there’s Red 40 in there. He says he doesn’t want Red 40 because he doesn’t want to be hyperactive. She put it back on the shelf then went home and did some research and emailed me and said she felt bad that she never knew what the stuff was, and now she knows.
That’s kind of our goal. Kids are the next generation. They’re really going to make a difference, so we need to start with an education campaign in school and get the word out. And it’s working.
Have you found widespread support throughout the community (Durham, North Carolina)?
Yeah, we’ve had government-level support for what we’re doing. Especially after TechCrunch Disrupt, it’s given us some great publicity. We’ve heard from celebrities, from local chefs, the whole gamut, Duke University. I have a meeting with UNC-Chapel Hill. Their nutrition team wants to do some kind of collaboration project. This is stuff they’ve been saying for years, but there’s never been a clear cut way to communicate it to people. So it’s been really exciting. We’re working with other startups, we’re working with health care. We’re partnering with a couple companies that do things in the fitness world but they don’t handle nutrition, so we’re picking up the slack on that. The responses that we’ve had have been pretty stellar.
Last week we won the Blue Cross, Blue Shield, North Carolina innovation challenge to reduce obesity. Yeah, success has been really exciting. Right now, as our project stands, we’re probably at about 8 to 10 percent of where we want to be. So we’ve just scratched the surface of what are vision is.
Are there any aspects of your work that you find to be particularly large challenges or that are immensely rewarding?
I think that one of our biggest challenges is that some people don’t want to know. How do you explain this to someone who really doesn’t care, doesn’t want to know. It’s not their fault really. We’ve become a very instant society. If people for example are tired, they’ll have a coffee or a Red Bull to pick ‘em up. It’s instant, instant gratification, instant results that you understand. Choosing between two granola bars, a healthy version and basically a glorified candy bar, both will crave your hunger. That’s what you’re really looking for, a quick pick me up. However, one is probably half the price of the other, which is probably more acceptable. What we’re trying to do is to have people understand the long term effects.
Cancer rates are through the roof. And a lot of these things like diabetes don’t happen overnight. You don’t get cancer overnight, you don’t get diabetes overnight. We’re trying to make people understand that it’s a lifestyle choice that you have to make.
Am I saying that eating M&M’s now and then is going to hurt you? Absolutely not. The problem is that your body is like the conveyor belt in that I Love Lucy episode where all the chocolates are coming out. You’re body can handle a lot of the stuff. It’s an amazing machine in a sense, it can process a lot of these chemicals. But it can’t do too much. After a while, it starts losing function. The conveyor belt moves too quickly and you’re consuming too many chemicals. That’s when your body starts shutting down and messing up. We try to explain that, but it’s one of those things… Our biggest proponents are people with medical concerns, because they get it. But the ones who don’t get it, it’s too late. But I think there’s a trend. I think we’re all waking up. The education system is getting much better about teaching what’s in our food, and I’m noticing more and more people are starting to take responsibility for what they’re consuming, especially if they have families. That’s why Whole Foods and all these different organizations and grocery store chains are doing phenomenal. That’s why produce sales are up.
People are starting to ask a lot of tough questions and there’s a lot of competition now as well. You know, Kellogg’s, General Mills, used to be the only cereals, and now you have more choices, and they’re more readily available, and people are ready to accept them. We feel that we’re about to ride this wave of more informed consumers.
How did you put your team together? Did you start alone? Did you have friends with you from the beginning?
I ended up bringing over some of the team from the first company to the second. And coming off the second company, I brought a couple team members over to the third. With this company, right now, we really only have three full-time employees and we have four part-time. Creating the team took quite a while, but everyone is very passionate not only about the short term but the long term. Everyone is driven. We’ve got another former medical student, we’ve got some phenomenal advisors, we’ve got a dietician, a researcher. We’ve got the support of other local startups as well.
We had a team of dietitians from 11 countries on 6 continents help out with the research for all the ingredients. We couldn’t find anybody in Antarctica. The reason we had such a diverse group of dietitians and nutritionists and researchers was that there are ingredients that are found in the Philippines that don’t even exist over here, that nobody’s even heard of, and we really wanted the best research possible on each particular ingredient. So if it comes to the United States, someone can go, “Hey, this will lower your blood pressure, or this fruit can lower your cholesterol.” That’s kind of what we’re moving toward.
With all the technology we’ve created with INRFOOD, we’re creating a sister product called INRBODY, which does exactly what INRFOOD does, but does it with cosmetics, lotions, creams, deodorants, basic stuff that you apply all over your body. So before you give your baby a shampoo that was on sale, we’ll allow you to scan it–you can tell us that you have an eight-month old–and understanding their skin development and all, we’ll tell you if it’s suitable or not. And why. We don’t just tell you if it is or isn’t. You’ll always have that why factor.
Do you have a timeline for that project?
INRBODY will most likely launch in mid or late summer, before back to school time. We’ve still got about another year of putting things together. We’re trying to get INRFOOD going in one direction, and will catapult from that, INRBODY uses the same infrastructure, but different information, a different database. Then two years from now, we’re planning to launch INRPETS, which does exactly what INRBODY and INRFOOD do but for your pets. So if you have a dalmatian, you can scan a bag of dog food and it will tell you the nutrients in there–and if it’s suitable for your dalmatian, or for your chihuahua. Pet obesity has become a big concern as well.
The problem with pet food these days is that you’ve got this 20 pound bag of pet food. The natural food bags are about 14 pounds or 13 pounds and almost the same price. So most people are going to go with the 20 pound bag. But what people don’t understand is that you might as well put rocks in there. All that extra is just filler, things like saw-dust and crushed up bone. Dogs especially can’t process it, so most of goes right out their rear end. They end up pooping more. They’ve done experiments, and found that if you give dogs natural food, they don’t poop as much. Less clean-up, less hassle, and you’re giving them healthier food. When, if you give them the big 20 pound bag of food, they poop out half of it. It’s more work for you, you’re not really giving your dog the nutrients, and you’re paying the same amount. It’s just that the 20 bag looks better than than 14 or 13. With that in mind, we’re working on having people understand the two kinds of food.
Do you have any tips or advice for other startups entrepreneurs?
The thing I’ve learned going through these last few years is that networking is more about partnership. It really helps you propel. When I started my first company with just my partner, I never had an office. I thought I’d work from my home and save money. Now with this company, I have an office in a space where there are about 25 other offices / shared rooms. We all have our individual offices, but it’s not a complex at all. There all startups. It’s been the greatest thing for us, for collaboration, for focus groups, inspiration. That’s one of the best things, the collaboration, especially with entrepreneurs. It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about INRFOOD?
You are what you eat. The food you put in your body fuels your day entirely. We hope that with the use of INRFOOD, we can make not only a local, but national and an international change. We hope that INRFOOD will just get smarter and smarter, knowing more about you, and eventually be able to advise you. For instance, if you’re a runner, maybe you should try eating this particular thing. Not only that, but it will tell you at what time. It will be able to do a lot of leg work for you. We really hope that we change our food system.