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Menlo Park startup is building 'world's largest molecular food database'

 

What's actually in the food you eat? A Menlo Park startup is dedicated to answering that question by analyzing food composition down to the molecular level.

The business, called Clear Labs, does molecular analyses for food companies seeking to screen food for ingredient quality. The company, located at 1455 Adams Drive in east Menlo Park, also makes available to the public reports on food products.

Clear Labs' founders Mahni Ghorashi and Sasan Amini started the business in 2013. Both foodies working in biotech, they began by using genomic information in the public domain to conduct their tests, but soon found their own data to be more reliable, Mr. Ghorashi said in an interview with the Almanac. Since then, he said, "We've built the world's largest molecular food database."

The business' main product is called Clear View, an analysis that flags for food manufacturers products or brands that have hygienic issues or substitute ingredients not found on the label. The information can protect brands and reduce the risk of food recalls, according to Brittany Solano, Clear Labs' spokesperson.

The company releases public reports, called "Clear Foods," which offer an analysis of one kind of food among many different brands, said Mr. Ghorashi.

The first Clear Foods report, which analyzed hot dog products and brands, went viral in October 2015 when findings indicated that out of 345 meat and vegetarian hot dog samples tested from grocery chain stores, about 14 percent contained substitutions or had hygienic problems. Twenty percent of vegetarian hot dog product samples were flagged for hygienic reasons. Other vegetarian products claimed to have more than double the protein than was really there.

In November, the company released a report on turkey and turkey products using the same metrics. Of 158 samples of turkey products, the company found that 13.5 percent had substitutions, hygienic problems or missing ingredients. Whole turkey eaten over the holidays, the report said, had on average 54 more calories and 5.5 more grams of fat than the label stated.

The company uses a process called DNA barcoding to identify the segments of DNA it finds in the food products it tests. That process uses specific sequences of DNA that are unique to each species, creating a kind of ID marker.

The DNA barcoding process they use, Mr. Ghorashi said, can sequence genes far more quickly and cheaply than in the past. Since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003 for about $2.7 billion, the technology and speed of the DNA sequencing process have improved immensely. Now, the whole process to sequence an entire genome costs an average of about $1,245, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute, and for Clear Labs, about three days to process, he said.

When asked what inspired him and his co-founder to start the company, Mr. Ghorashi said it was partly because he's a self-described foodie, but also because the processed food industry is a $4 trillion global market, and "there's a very large and compelling market emerging around food analytics."

Clear Labs has 15 employees and has raised about $8 million from "leading Silicon Valley firms," he said. The business is not publishing the names of customers or financial data at this time, Ms. Solano said, but she added that it is piloting its product with "some of the country's top 10 manufacturers and retailers."

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