An open data standard for food has emerged on the web. With such a tool, restaurants, food apps, grocery stores, the government and other interested parties can tell that arugula is also called rocket salad, no matter where on the web it occurs or what a restaurant menu or recipe app calls it. Right now, that’s an impossible task, which leads to inefficiencies in both consumer-facing apps and the supply chains of restaurants and grocery stores.
A group of folks concerned about sustainable foods have built the seeds of an open food database hosted on Heroku, with the code pertaining to it located at Github. The group, which gave an awesome panel at South by Southwest in Austin, consisted of a
restaurateur chef, someone from an urban gardening movement, someone from Code for America and someone who rates sustainable restaurants.
So far, they have created a database of 1,000 foods and hope to have 7,000 that folks can access via an API. “It’s absurd that everyone has to build a whole new list of foods to build an app,” said Anthony Nicalo, CEO of Foodtree, and a chef.
I was excited about the effort since I wrote about the idea last April, and again in July, inspired by recipe site Gojee. After playing with that and other apps such as Food on the Table, I realized I needed a single way to identify food from one app to another. This is a challenging task for a variety of reasons, with one being that the makers of many of the processed foods that Americans eat, or even prepared foods served in restaurants, are composed of a multitude of ingredients (some are food and some are not).
However, the Open Food folks have sidestepped the issue of processed foods by only including whole foods in their database. But to make such a database useful for a wide variety of people and purposes, I think things like Coke or Twinkies will have to be included. For example, the power of Open Food data extends beyond food apps to calorie-counting apps or even budgeting apps.
Even those that might be threatened by such a service recognize the utility of an open food database. Alex Rosenfeld, the CEO and founder of Tasted Menu, an app that shows restaurant diners what the best foods are on a given menu, thinks the idea is a good one. He is an example of an entrepreneur who has built his food company first by hiring a bunch of Culinary Institute of America chefs to build a taxonomy for 6,000 foods and their associated tags.
He texted me after the panel to say that his primary concern was that the effort be cautious about how it tries to attribute things to restaurants. For example, while he might gain value from starting from such a database, his real value is the taxonomy his team has created around dishes. So, if one checks out catfish po’ boys on Tasted Menu, his app could use the Open Food data for the catfish or the breading, but his app will also note that the food is Cajun or Creole, fried, a sandwich and other things that will help real users figure out where they want to go and what they want to eat.
But establishing a basic nomenclature for the web is a great way to turn the heat up on food apps.