The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Jacques-Olivier Vandenhende, chief strategy officer and co-founder of YouMeal, a foodtech startup based in Brussels which provides software to analyze the nutritional and environmental impact of recipes. Vandenhende discussed how AI can improve the food value chain and help food industry professionals innovate while addressing various consumer demands.
This interview has been edited.
Eline Chivot: There are a handful of food applications on the market, such as Chef Watson, FoodPairing, or LifeSum. How is YouMeal’s user experience different?
Jacques-Olivier Vandenhende: YouMeal is the only provider which allows the users to automatically import recipes and to deliver rapidly and at low cost an exhaustive, understandable, and useful analysis of the recipes about the nutritional aspects, the allergens, the environmental impact, the costs, etc.
First, our application programming interface (API) makes it possible to automatically import recipes. We also use algorithms in our technology to take into account in recipes the impacts of product processing (such as peeling, deboning, drying, or cooking in oil or water) on nutrition and the environment.
Second, the access price to YouMeal is affordable because the technology helps to limit the maintenance cost of the ingredients database. Indeed, YouMeal has its own database, which at the same time is linked to various external ones. The architecture of the database and the way the ingredients are specified are useful to facilitate the maintenance and the importation from external sources.
Third, the information provided to the users is complete and user-friendly. Therefore, food producers can easily appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of their recipes. The user interface is based on numerous studies performed with psychologists, nutritionists, designers, and environmentalists.
Fourth, the analysis results provided by YouMeal can be shared between multiple users and partners. And finally, the various outputs are due to the capability of the technology to create links between various sources of information. These links are semi-automatized thanks to a powerful searching tool dedicated to food context.
Chivot: What kind of data do you “feed” the YouMeal system with? Can you share some interesting insights that it generates?
Vandenhende: Our customers who wish to work on their recipes will find a wide range of more than 100,000 references composed of basic products, but also a wide range of compound products. The YouMeal database is itself populated by many different databases.
The subsequent link to multiple databases is key to detecting inconsistencies, correcting them to make the data more accurate, and enriching it with information that will allow our customers (ranging from collective and commercial food services such as university catering and restaurants, but also distributors, producers and wholesalers) to better value their recipes. While initially most product sheets provide legal information (such as allergens, macronutrients, and lists of ingredients), once passed in YouMeal, they can convey additional information: Vitamins, minerals, various qualifications (such as vegan, organic, etc.). We also calculate the environmental impact of food recipes with five indicators: Water consumption, water pollution, energy required, ground surface needed, and fish extinction.
Chivot: How does your system address consumer demands and concerns, and ultimately empower the clients of your users as well?
Vandenhende: The AI we have introduced into our tool allows us to process a large amount of data with greater reliability, in a shorter time, and at a controlled cost. Our customers have to deal with a constant diversification of food (each day, new food products enter the market), with legal obligations and concerns over the impact of food on the environment, with greater consumer demand for tastier, high quality food, for specific diets, for traceability and more transparency in terms of nutritional information, and for sustainable food production. This has an impact on the volume of data to be processed. Our approach allows us to absorb this growth. Data can be constantly updated and made available to consumers with an unprecedented level of reliability, accuracy, and breadth.
For instance, our software allows food producers to simulate several variations of a particular product. It also ensures quality such as by providing the mandatory nutritional declaration, which producers are responsible for. This frees up time for food producers, time which they can use to innovate by inventing new recipes.
This way, YouMeal acts as an intermediary between food production professionals and consumers, to reconcile consumer demands with producers’ obligations.
Chivot: A host of other features and technologies could apply to your system. What’s on YouMeal’s plate, in terms of future developments?
Vandenhende: We are currently developing a brand-new version of YouMeal. This should provide a large number of additional functionalities that will further increase the level of automation and ease of use for our clients. Communication tools towards consumers will be further strengthened to enable them to personalize their access to information. We will also offer recipe design and reporting tools that will make it even easier for our clients to offer their consumers a healthier, more transparent, and more environmentally friendly offer.
Chivot: How could AI and other technologies transform food consumption, production, and the food industry in general in the future?
Vandenhende: Artificial intelligence opens up the field of perspective in proportions that we find difficult to imagine today. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report, the food chain faces major challenges in terms of ensuring food supply while reducing its impact on the environment. We are convinced that artificial intelligence will have an essential role in helping to implement new agricultural practices, production, and food consumption. The solution developed by YouMeal supports food companies in their transition to healthier and more environmentally-friendly food.