As a young boy, Jonas Dalidd learned to read food labels in the grocery store when his mother told him he could pick any cereal he wanted — as long as it didn’t contain sugar.
But as a health-conscious adult, Dalidd struggled to decipher the ingredients commonly found in processed foods. So he came up with a website that would define and rate food ingredients in simple language.
“I would read ingredients that I couldn’t understand and I could never find a good resource on the Web,” said Dalidd, of Aliso Viejo, Calif. “Instead of just searching Google for each individual ingredient, I wanted one website. I wanted a permanent solution for my queries.”
In September, Dalidd, 32, an engineer at a software company, launched BeFoodSmart.com with his sister, Dina Clapinski, a stay-at-home mom in Santa Barbara, Calif.
The free site allows users to search for some of the most commonly used additives and preservatives for a quick look at potential health risks, countries that have banned the ingredient or require warning labels, and a list of references. The site explains how ingredients are most commonly used. For instance, polysorbate 80 is a thickener found in cake mix and salad dressing, and butylated hydroxyanisole is a preservative found in instant mashed potatoes and cereal. Dalidd also designed the search function to find the inevitable misspellings that come from such names.
In the past month, Be Food Smart had 14,000 page views from 6,000 visitors. Most users are American, but they also come from Canada, Australia and the U.K. The siblings have made a small amount of money from advertising.
While Dalidd handles the technical side, Clapinski, 34, does most of the research and writing.
She assigns a letter grade to each ingredient based on health effects. In the category of sweeteners, honey gets an A. Stevia, made from the leaves of a South American plant, earns a B, while sugar is a C. Splenda and high-fructose corn syrup both get D's.
In general, the cheapest processed foods contain the worst ingredients.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans spend 5.7 percent of total income on food, while in Europe, the percentage ranges from 9 to 17. In 1970, Americans spent nearly 14 percent of their income on food.
Clapinski said American food manufacturers use different ingredients for the overseas market in response to public demand or regulation. For instance, food makers selling in the European Union have stopped using certain food colorings rather than include warning labels that they have been linked to hyperactivity in children.
“I’ve tried to rewire my brain to just spend more money on food,” Dalidd said.
Clapinski recently inquired at the Starbucks counter about what type of sweetener is used in a lime refresher drink. When the barista didn’t know, Clapinski eyeballed the label herself to see sugar and stevia before placing her order.
Gerri French, a registered dietitian in Santa Barbara, volunteered to serve as an adviser after seeing the site. She said she really likes the content and neutral tone and wanted to help lend some professional credibility to the effort.
“I think it’s pretty smart and simple,” she said. “I think it’s an important message.”
French said she recommends that users check the ingredients for the foods they eat most often. She said consumers need to continually stay abreast of new information. For instance, she said high maltose corn syrup is a synthetic sugar that sounds less harmful than high fructose corn syrup, even though it’s not any healthier.
“The food industry keeps wanting to change things because they know people are getting savvy to it,” she said. “We need to be educated consumers.”
Website users say they appreciate having the resource.
Amanda Marie, a vocalist living in Seal Beach, Calif., likes to browse the Be Food Smart website, which she bookmarked a couple months ago. Marie, 30, searches ingredients in her pantry as well as chemicals in beauty products.
“Now I really know what’s in a food,” Marie said. “It’s user-friendly, it’s easy to navigate. One thing I love is the possible health effects. It’s crazy to see what we don’t know as consumers.”