Post by Eliza Barclay, The Salt at NPR Food (3/24/14)
Leave it to the folks at Reddit to uncover the hidden treasures of the Internet. Recently, they were gabbing about Google’s nutrition comparison tool, which was quietly launched at the end of 2013 and escaped us here at The Salt.
Using this clever little tool is as simple as searching for two types of food, preceded by the word “compare.” The word “vs.” between the two foods also seems to work for some comparisons but not every single one.
So, for example, say you want to compare the calories, sugar content and nutrients of mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes? Just type in “compare mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes,” and boom, you get photos and an elegant chart revealing that sweet potatoes have 4.2 grams of sugar per 100 grams, compared with 0.5 grams in mashed potatoes. Scroll down and you’ll see that sweet potatoes kill mashed potatoes in vitamin A, potassium and calcium content.
As you contrast ingredients, perhaps out of sheer curiosity, perhaps while designing a meal plan, you’ll learn a lot by playing around with the preparation and cooking method of the food. Tweak the mashed potatoes to “potato, mashed, with milk and butter,” and unsurprisingly, the fat content jumps up.
You can even compare apples and oranges (apples are slightly sweeter and have slightly more calories, in case you were wondering). Or analyze foods from totally different food groups — for instance, what do grapes and bacon have in common? Google says it’s getting most of its data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database, so you can compare pretty much anything in it.
According to Google spokeswoman Krisztina Radosavljevic-Szilagyi, the company created the comparison tool after the success of its original nutrition search tool, introduced in May 2013.
“We noticed that people were doing a lot of food and nutrition searches — multi-step searches on one food and another food,” Radosavljevic-Szilagyi tells The Salt. “These things are often compared to one another, so we thought, why don’t we make it easy?”
The data aren’t perfect — as we discovered when we dug deep into bacon. Depending on the preparation you choose, the number of protein grams fluctuates pretty dramatically, dropping all the way to 0.1 grams for “cooked bacon.” (Some have posited that “cooked bacon” in this case means bacon grease, but it’s not clear.) Still, you may still learn some surprising facts. For instance, when it comes to “bacon vs. ham,” bacon comes out way fattier than almost all cuts of ham.
Of course, when we typed in “bacon vs. kale” for fun, we also got a slew of tempting-looking recipes. Radosavljevic-Szilagyi reminded us that’s because Google’s algorithm is always calculating “what might be useful to you when you ask a question.” Thanks, Google. Yes, I would like to make Warm Kale Salad with Bacon, Dates, Almonds, Crispy Shallots and Parmesan.
The company rolled out yet another food search tool at the end of February: This one helps you access restaurant menus faster — so you don’t have to mess with all those Flash presentations and slideshows that can make it frustrating to scan a Thai menu for your favorite duck curry on your smartphone. Google says it has access to the menus of 75 percent of restaurants in the U.S.
And the food tools won’t stop there, Radosavljevic-Szilagyi says. “There are plenty more complicated food, recipe and nutrition questions to help people answer. We want to give as many answers to as many complicated questions as possible.”
Copyright 2014 NPR.