Apps / Environment / Food and drink / Retail

How HowGood works

The story behind those ratings you may be seeing at natural foods stores.

HowGood independently evaluates a number of factors in telling you "how good" a certain food product is. (Photo courtesy of HowGood)
What if you had something more to go on in choosing responsibly-sourced products in the grocery store than just the product’s label?

We recently cited a $2 million investment round for an Android and iOS app that will give you a rating for the social responsibility of products you buy while you’re shopping in the grocery store. The Greenpoint-based company, HowGood, assesses products on a load of metrics and also assesses them relative to other companies in the same industry. Pretty complicated.

We reached out to the company to find out how it works, how it makes money and how it stays accurate.


The first thing to understand about HowGood is that you can think of the app as its dynamic calling card, said company CEO Alexander Gillett.

You can use it to scan the barcode of any product you have, and if HowGood has made an assessment of the product it will give you a thumbs up or thumbs down on the categories of “connected,” “conscious,” “local,” “direct,” “fair,” “whole” and “simple.” The app is a way of building familiarity with the HowGood way of looking at foods.

The revenue, however, comes from grocery stores that pay HowGood to post its scores alongside the price of every product.

One point the company makes on its website is that each company is scored relative to other companies in its industry. So, as the page describes it, if an industry is already low carbon-emissions, then low-emissions doesn’t count for much.

Gillett told us, “Our research has a huge variety in granularity depending on the product type and history, but whatever the underlying sub-categories, they always roll up into a very simple integer at the category level.”

Of the 17 people working for the company, ten of them are either doing research or building the tools that enable HowGood to process the data the researchers collect.

Over the past four years, since we settled on an effective research plan, we have just researched each product our client stores have sent us,” Gillett said. “Fifty percent of our efforts go into mapping the landscape of the food system. That allows us to effectively categorize the environmental and social impact of different ingredients, methods, and processes very quickly. We pair that information with an assessment of the company history to build the overall product rating.”

As HowGood’s client base grows, new products from existing companies can be assessed fairly quickly, but the same product from a new company can take longer. Scores are double-checked every six months.

As more and more natural foods stores either open or look for ways to compete with Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, they are contracting with HowGood to let them post ratings right on their shelves, alongside every product they sell. Again, that’s how HowGood earns money. By going to the stores rather than the producer, they avoid the conflict of interest of getting hired by the people they are scoring.

HowGood staffers.

HowGood staffers. (Photo courtesy of HowGood)

The company has built its system in Python and is using Amazon Web Services, with Nginx handling server requests. HowGood’s database is in Postgresql. Eight of the company’s staff members work from the Greenpoint office.

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