Friday, June 14, 2013

Now Available on Google: Searchable Nutritional Data

Want to know how much sugar is in an apple; or how much potassium is in a banana; or the amount of saturated fat in coconut?

Well, Google has made the answers to those questions much more accessible.

A couple weeks ago Google announced it would make all kinds of nutritional information searchable. Typing in the search command "how much fat is in coconut milk" brings up your standard nutrition facts panel, much like the nutrition fact labels on products you see in the grocery store. Specific data includes calories, fat (saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated), cholesterol, sodium potassium, total carbohydrates (fiber and sugar), protein, and vitamins and minerals.

The function primarily pulls data from a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and looks like this:


While this function is certainly helpful in providing a quick glimpse of basic nutrition data for general foods, it does lack a bit of detail. You are able to distinguish between whole milk and skim, but you can't look at the labels for specific brands. Or if you search for nutritional facts on "crackers," there isn't the capacity to look at data for all the various kinds, such as those that primarily use seeds instead of flour.

Though nutrition facts tell part of the story about food, it doesn't tell the whole thing (and in my opinion, not even the most important part). The most important part of the nutrition facts on a product isn't how many calories or grams of sugar, but the INGREDIENTS. The ingredients list can generally tell you everything you need to know and alert you to any red flags for things that can impact your health (for example, things like hydrogenated oils).

Regardless of its limitations, the function is a great example of the power of big/open data to help inform consumers. The extent to which consumers are actually able to understand and use this data is another story, but kudos to Google for making it available. I'm looking forward to seeing how the function evolves and if additional information is added in the future.

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