Julia Hayden, Product Owner at RisingFoodStar FoodMaestro, explains how their platform is giving consumers the power to make better dietary choices.
Hi Julia! Can you please tell us who you are and what it is that you do?
I am a registered Dietitian with a Master’s in Nutrition. Once I’d finished my studies, I discovered this amazing tech startup called FoodMaestro and I was fortunate enough to join the team as the Product Owner! I help provide the diet & nutrition expertise for the technology, and also work on new upcoming diet solutions. I work alongside our CEO and founder, Jaed Khan, and a team of developers and software engineers!
And what exactly is the vision behind FoodMaestro?
Quite simply, we are here to give consumers the right answer when they ask the question: “Can I eat this?”. So we’ve developed a platform that allows consumers to effectively get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer when they need to know if a certain food is suitable for their specific dietary needs; for example if they have certain food allergies, are following a vegan or vegetarian diet, or if they have a medical condition like Coeliac disease there are certain foods and ingredients that they want to avoid. It essentially acts like a dietitian in somebody’s pocket.
How amazing. Where did the idea for the business come from?
It started as a passion-project of our founder. Jaed had been working at a UK Supermarket and he identified a real need to go beyond the fairly simplistic food labels and provide people with specific information on the food they were buying, whether it was because they had a food allergy or because of a lifestyle choice like veganism – either way people want to know what is in their food and, most importantly, if they should eat it.
So if I am one of your customers, what exactly does FoodMaestro look like to me?
For consumers they would see this as one of three mobile applications that provide information on either food allergies, the FODMAP diet or gluten intolerance. For the FODMAP app we are working with dietitians from Guys and St Thomas’ hospital in London who, as part of the low FODMAP diet education, actually get trained on using the app as a tool that they offer to their clients. For the gluten intolerance app we are working alongside Coeliac UK to power their Gluten-Free checker app that is available to CUK members. As a platform I see it as something that takes the black and white of data to the colour of real-life health issues.
And whilst I see the apps are very simple to use, I assume that the brain behind them is pretty high-tech?
It’s a very clever data platform where we have a set of APIs (interfaces that allow different applications to communicate with each other)hat many retailers and manufacturers connect into. Currently we have data on over 200,000 products which we update on a daily basis.
As a global company, are you looking to have a global impact on people’s health?
Absolutely. We want to be the leader in developing food transparency solutions so that we can help people cut through all the noise and confusion on diet and nutrition that we are currently faced with:
“It is the place of dietitians to be the in-between from medical records to the grocery aisle and our technology is making this process digital and empowering people to make better food choices.”
Ultimately, our aim is to connect the role of science with the needs of consumers. If we understand the science behind a certain diet, then we can translate some of the confusing terms often used by the food & fitness industry to something that consumers understand. So rather than saying something like: “This diet will mean that you will be operating in a state of ketosis” we can say to consumers: “Just avoid eating these sorts of highly refined carbs as it is better for your health”. That’s much easier for people to understand and then act upon!
And do you think your technology can help businesses provide better foods to consumers as well?
Definitely. As an example, 15% of consumers have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), so imagine if we can alert manufacturers to the fact that some of their product ingredients, such as garlic and onion flavourings, are actually common triggers for IBS sufferers? We can then have a conversation with them that ultimately is improving their products and helping people eat foods that are better-suited to them. There are lots of opportunities.
As a startup I imagine that you have had a fair number of challenges that you’ve had to overcome along the way?
We’re 3 years old now and we’ve learned a lot in that time! Our biggest challenge has been ensuring the quality and accuracy of our data that is so pivotal to the credibility of our technology. As humans we are subject to errors and bias so we’ve had to develop processes to catch these errors. The other issue we’ve had is around pricing: people are prepared to pay around £200 an hour for a qualified dietitian or holistic nutritionist, but it is much harder to pinpoint how much people would pay for an app-based diet and nutrition service. We are constantly looking for feedback and tips from consumers to help us refine our insights on this.
And how is EIT Food helping you fulfil this mission to help people know what is in their food?
It’s been very valuable for FoodMaestro to be part of the EIT Food community. We’ve connected with a lot of other startups who have been very open about the challenges we are all facing and helping each other through them. We’ve also been able to showcase our technology at lots of key industry events where the feedback from people has helped us refine and,further develop our technology. And significantly, being part of EIT Food has given us access to partners and connections we would not easily be in contact with otherwise:
“Being part of EIT Food has given us access and introductions to so many great companies which has allowed us to gain eminence in the industry, open new doors in new markets and use our data for the greater good.”
Can you tell us more about the activities you are involved in with EIT Food?
We’re currently involved on a project with the University of Reading, the British Nutrition Foundation and the University of Munich that is helping improve the way that health claims are communicated to consumers. The European Food Standards Agency currently has a list of health claims that they have approved, but the problem is that they really don’t have enough understanding on how consumers interpret these claims or use the information. So this project is building a toolkit that is aiming to educate consumers on where these health claims come from and how they can use them to make better dietary choices. In addition, we want to gain insights on the types of health claims that consumers trust, believe, and that influence their shopping habits.
And what are you working on next?
We’re looking to expand our customer offering by applying the same technology we have today to new diets and new clinical needs. So for example, we want to be assessing new ‘trend’ diets that come along for their clinical credentials so that we can position ourselves as a trusted and credible provider of dietary information. We are also looking to expand into new markets and are actually launching with a Canadian retailer very soon to bring our technology to the North American market.
Finally, what are you excited about for the future of food and what do you think we should be fighting harder for?
I am excited by the prospect of technology being key in making foods more transparent, which will give consumers greater power in their food choices and that in turn will drive manufacturers to reformulate their packaged foods to be healthier. I am very frustrated by the ‘vilifying of nutrients’ we currently see, such as the negativity towards things like sugar or carbs, as this is actually making us scared of our food! I am looking forward to a time when we focus on just highlighting the good stuff: all foods can be part of a healthy diet, we just need to make informed choices.
About Julia Hayden: Julia is a Registered Dietitian & Product Owner at Foodmaestro.
About the author: Matt Eastland is the Writer and Content Manager for EIT Food. He holds a degree in Politics and Masters in Renewables. He is passionate about the connections between food, sustainability and innovation.