A growing number of companies are offering their employees digital tools to help improve their eating habits in hopes of increasing productivity, reducing sick days and cutting health care costs.
With an app and a website, Zipongo, a small digital start-up, is aimed at helping employees navigate a companyâs cafeteria menu to find choices that best meet a set of preferences and health goals set by the workers themselves.
But Zipongo also extends its reach into takeout meals and the home kitchen, offering recipes, shopping lists and discounts on grocery items like fruits and vegetables.
Since it made its debut in 2011, Zipongo has connected with some 125 companies to let employees try it, although none have made it mandatory.
While Google was an early adopter a few years ago, IBM was among the most recent and began offering Zipongo to its 10,000 employees in January. Like other companies, IBM has long worked to steer its employees to healthier eating, even using a âtraffic lightâ system to indicate which cafeteria foods might be good choices. In 2007, the company offered a $ 150 cash rebate for IBM families recording their healthier eating habits in a confidential online system for eight weeks.
âWe strongly believe eating healthy is a social endeavor, both at work and at home,â said Dr. Kyu Rhee, chief health officer at IBM. âIt makes no sense if you eat healthy at the office and then eat badly at home.â
Zipongo is also working with entities like Virgin Pulse and Benefitfocus, and health plans like Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina and Independent Health. So-called âwellnessâ companies are now benefiting from a provision in the federal health care law that requires insurers to cover obesity screenings and nutritional counseling for many employees.
Jason Langheier, the founder of Zipongo, noted that the National Center for Health Statistics had estimated that the average cost of a nutrition counseling session was $ 73.
âI thought, Wouldnât it be better to have a useful set of digital tools first,â Mr. Langheier said.
Zipongo is a private company. It has raised roughly $ 10 million in financing since its launch in 2011, including a $ 5 million investment by Excel Venture Management in late 2014, according to CrunchBase. It currently is raising more money.
On average, Zipongo charges employers a little more than $ 50 a year per employee for a complete set of its services, Mr. Langheier said.
Zipongo and other digital start-ups offering such wellness apps to employers and employees continue to raise concerns among health advocates as to whether these types of tools pose problems for protecting employee privacy.
âAre they going to share your information with restaurants in your neighborhood? Grocery stores?â Ms. Pollitz asked. âThe privacy statement is, like most privacy statements, very broad and permissive.â
Mr. Langheier said his company does not collect any biometric information via its free system. Employees of companies that pay for the system can load it with various biometrics and tie their grocery loyalty cards to it. He said Zipongo that does not sell any information on its users to advertisers and that any data shared with employers for the purposes of analyzing the service is anonymized.
But as with other wellness apps and programs, health and nutrition experts are still studying whether employees stay with these programs long-term and whether they are effective measures for improving employee health. In addition, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been monitoring the use of such programs as it prepares to issue final rules on screenings and other health-related measures in the workplace. The agency has argued that in some cases antidiscrimination laws may be violated, although it has recently lost court rulings on the subject.
Employers have long been trying to find ways to get their employees to eat better, said Michael OâDonnell, director of the Health Management Research Center at the University of Michigan. âNutrition has been one of the challenges in our field,â Dr. OâDonnell said. âIn workplace programs, the same as in national health education programs, itâs been very difficult to get people to eat more fruits and vegetables.â
At Google, which has promoted healthy eating for several years, employees have been using Zipongo since 2011.
âWhat we donât want to do is start saying what people can and canât eat,â said Michiel Bakker, director of global food services at Google. âBut we do think we can help our employees make food choices that are better for them as an individual.â
About half of Google employees who signed up for Zipongo used the app at least once a month in 2014, according to a Harvard Business School case study. (One of the studyâs authors is an investor in Zipongo.) .
Users plug in their food preferences â spicy, gluten-free, protein-rich â and, if they want, biometric data like cholesterol and blood pressure. Zipongo then creates a menu from the choices in Googleâs cafeteria.
Google employees using Zipongo ate more fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, calcium, fish and fiber-rich foods. Google also saw a dip in red meat consumption among its Zipongo users, which was one of its goals.
âWe tried Meatless Monday, but it was very difficult to make that work,â Mr. Bakker said. âPeople donât respond well if we say, âEat more of this and less of that,â but theyâre open to suggestions about better food choices like Zipongo provides.â
But Mr. Langheier, who has a degree in public health as well as a medical degree, said he did not did not invent Zipongo to reach only high income, tech-savvy companies like Google and IBM. Inspiration for the system, came from work he did as a pro bono consultant where he first realized the obstacles doctors faced in offering diet advice to overweight patients.
âWe spend $ 8,500 a year in the U.S., on average, for health care for one person, and just $ 2,200 on food, yet we rank 35th globally for life expectancy,â Dr. Langheier said. âIn Japan, they spend about $ 3,300 on health care and $ 3,200 on food â and they rank second for life expectancy.â