Can This Startup Make Money by Calling B.S. on Food Nutrition Labels?

August 14, 2018, 10:30 AM UTC

Consider a riddle of modern living: A time-suck like Netflix knows that you like historical dramas with strong female leads, but when it comes to the vital daily ritual of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, your doctors, dietitians, and nutritionists offer suggestions that are astonishingly vague by comparison: eat more vegetables, avoid sugars, and maybe try more whole grains. All the talk out there of our bodies as machines—consider personal trainers who tell us that food is fuel—have made dieting deeply mechanical and starkly impersonal. Culinarily speaking, Silicon Valley has given us Soylent and not much more.

Enter the seven-person squad—one designer, two programmers, three dietitians, and one food scientist—behind Pinto. The startup, which operates next to Grand Central Terminal in New York City, has built a comprehensive nutritional database of 100,000 food items from Whole Foods, Kroger, and the nation’s 200 most popular fast-food and fast-casual restaurants—in all, comprising the top 85% of everything Americans eat. The startup then harnesses the data into an eponymous app that allows literal consumers to input any of those items and learn if it complies with their dietary needs.

Is it lactose-free? Diabetic-friendly? Is it vegan and Whole30-compliant? Is it paleo and gluten-free? Pinto promises accurate answers.

“There’s something called front-of-pack labeling that’s all the stuff you see that says, for example, ‘high in protein,’ or has a check mark from the American Heart Association. We want to do that on a personalized level,” CEO and founder Sam Slover tells Fortune. “The personalization of food is the future of food.” Pinto takes a different approach than a company such as Habit, an Oakland, Calif. startup that sells $299 kits that will tell you what you should eat based on your genetic profile, metabolism, and body measurements.

The share of Americans on specific diets shot up from 14% last year to 36% this year, according to the Food & Health Survey released by the International Food Information Council Foundation. The latter figure is even higher for respondents 18 to 34 years old (45%), whereas for respondents over 65, it’s just 28%.

Pinto aims to be a sort of 23andMe for eating, an app that allows for Dewey decimal dieting—that is, exact, specific, tailored nutrition. The startup says it knows, for example, more than 250 ways that food companies obscure the presence of sugar in lists of ingredients. Wonder Bread lists it three ways, Slover notes: as high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, and sugar. Meanwhile, Cool Ranch Doritos lists sugar four ways: as corn syrup solids, dextrose, lactose, and sugar. “Our team’s favorites are muscovado, sucanat, rice syrup, golden syrup, and HFCS. The first two sound almost like a spice,” he says. “But because this is data, there’s no hiding anymore.”

The concept aims to deal a blow to food companies’ sleight of hand, which has to date brought Cheerios cereal dangerously close to being regulated as a cholesterol drug, led Vitaminwater’s lawyers to argue that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitaminwater was a healthy beverage,” and seen Kind Bars scolded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for calling themselves “healthy” (the company argued it was its corporate philosophy that was healthy, not the product). Pinto means to offer a rare brutal honesty in nutrition that favors the honesty over the brutality—not a Yelp for food, but rather a Snopes, backed by roughly 120 dietitians and nutritionists who have been consulting and field-testing for Pinto.

While the app is free to consumers, Pinto makes money, strangely enough, by telling food retailers exactly what they’re selling. “Obviously they know what they’re selling in terms of ingredients,” says Slover. “But they don’t know how customers are seeing that inventory. A restaurant can learn how much of its menu is Whole30-compliant and shift marketing around that. We offer that data automatically, programmatically, across the board. The share of Americans with specific dietary needs and wants isn’t going anywhere. It’s only going to grow. What we sell is a way to lock in a relationship with them.”

Major corporate players are taking notice. Campbell’s Soup, which invested $32 million in Habit, supplies Pinto directly with the nutritional profile of its more than 1,500 products. Amazon-owned Whole Foods gives Pinto nutritional info on nearly 2,000 items from 365 Everyday Value, one of its house brands. (You could argue that Pinto’s purchase personalization mimic’s the data-driven, customer-centric methods of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.)

“The food industry knows three things, but doesn’t know how to respond,” says Slover. “First, that people want to eat healthier. Second, that people have more nuanced and individualized considerations. And third, that everything is moving to digital, and the challenge is how to optimize for this new consumer in that world.”

So far, efforts to address those needs have been sub-optimal. City Councils and the FDA have been characteristically slow in their pushes for, say, calorie counts on menus or redesigned nutrition labels. Some food companies are indeed focused on individuals, but their business models are built around achieving personal nutrition by controlling food supply—think Jenny Craig, NutriSystem, SlimFast, or Weight Watchers. Popular dieting schemes like Atkins or Whole30, meanwhile, are happy to explain compliance within their systems, but are broadly silent when it comes to integrating that diet with other restrictions like kidney dysfunction, which affects 30 million Americans. In a world of trademarked diets, Pinto is offering ecumenical advice in a kind of dietary Esperanto.

“It’s the ease of use here that makes this such a game-changer for accountability and adherence,” says Charles Platkin, executive director of Hunter College’s New York City Food Policy Center. “You know what we were doing before this? We were asking people to keep food diaries. We were asking a lot and it’s not surprising that it wasn’t working. This has been the holy grail for over 20 years, and now it’s within reach.”

The Pinto app went live last week. Slover says the team is already working on its next version, which includes a filter for pregnancy needs and an ability to integrate two profiles’ needs so that a gluten-free husband and vegetarian wife can organize their meals together. “The data is all there already. It’s just a matter of building layers to read it,” he says. “A new diet could be invented tomorrow and we’d be able to add it to Pinto within a week.”

Correction, Sept. 6, 2018: An earlier version of this article misstated Habit’s location; the company is based in Oakland, not San Francisco. It also understated the input for Habit’s nutrition test; it uses other biomarkers in addition to genetic factors.

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