by Marion Nestle
Jul 13 2011

Google’s impressive healthy food program

I’m just back from judging Google’s first Science Fair for kids 13 to 18 at its corporate headquarters in California (yes, those are tomatoes growing in the foreground).

Google’s famous food program: Why famous?  It is:

  • Available 24/7
  • Totally free
  • Varied and delicious
  • Designed to promote health as well as environmental values (local, organic, sustainable)

On this last point, the recycling program is comprehensive and the campus is planted with organic vegetables, free for the picking:

But what about the “freshman 15”?

If free food is available 24/7, isn’t Google creating a classic “obesogenic” environment?  Do new Google employees gain weight?

Indeed, they do, and this creates a dilemma for the food team.  I met with Joe Marcus, Google’s food program manager, and executive chef Scott Giambastiani.  Free and very good food, they explain, is an important recruiting perk for Google.   Employees learn to manage it.  And those who are eating healthy food for the first time in their lives find that they actually lose weight.

Google’s food labeling program

Google labels its snacks, drinks, and the foods prepared in its 25 or so cafeterias with traffic lights: green (eat anytime), yellow (once in a while), or red (not often, please).  It bases the decisions about which food goes where on the Harvard School of Public Health’s healthy eating pyramid.   It labels foods at the top of the Harvard pyramid red, the ones in the middle yellow, and those at the bottom green.

In theory this makes sense as a starting point.  In practice, it tends to seem a bit like nutritionism—reducing the value of the foods to a few key nutrients.

The difficulties are most evident in the snack foods, freely available from kiosks all over the campus.   Products are displayed on shelves labeled red, yellow, or green.  For example:

GREEN: Sun chips, 1.5 oz, 210 kcal, 10 g fat, 180 mg sodium, 3 g sugar, 4 g fiber

YELLOW: Lentil chips, 1 oz, 110 kcal, 3 g fat, 170 mg sodium, 1 g sugar, 3 g fiber

YELLOW: Walnuts, 0.8 oz, 150 kcal, 15 g fat, 0 g sodium, 1 g sugar, 2 g fiber

RED:  Luau BBQ chips, 1.5 oz, 210 kcal,  14 g fat, 158 mg sodium, 2 g sugar, 1 g fiber

Note: the weights of the packages are not the same, so the amounts are not really comparable, but the ranking scheme seems to give most credit for fiber.

As for these and the foods cooked in cafeterias, Google uses other strategies to promote healthier choices.  It:

  • Puts the healthiest products at eye level
  • Uses small plates
  • Tries to include vegetables in everything
  • Makes healthier options available at all times
  • Uses the smallest sizes of snack foods (packages of 2 Oreos, rather than 6)
  • Makes it easy to be physically active (Google bicycles!)

The only place on the campus where employees pay for food is from a vending machine.  The pricing strategy is based on nutrient content, again according to the Harvard pyramid plan.  For the vended products, you pay:

  • one cent per gram of sugar
  • two cents per gram of fat
  • four cents per gram of saturated fat
  • one dollar per gram of trans fat

On this basis, Quaker Chewy Bars are 15 cents each, Famous Amos cookies re 55 cents, and an enormous Ghirardelli chocolate bar is $4.25.  Weights don’t count and neither do calories.  The machine is not run by Google.  Whoever does it has a sense of humor.

Impressive, all this.  Not every company can feed its nearly 30,000 employees like this but every company can adopt some of these strategies.  It might save them some health care costs, if nothing else.

  • MPP

    I think the Ghirardelli bar being most expensive — and the implication that it’s therefore the unhealthiest — is really tragic. Good-quality dark chocolate has fat, yes — but a) fat isn’t the enemy, and b) dark chocolate is typically low in sugar and has antioxidants.

    The Quaker bars and cookies, by contrast, are more processed, and probably have more sugar, more vegetable oil, etc. (Both of which cause more oxidation within the body than do saturated fats.)

    I know it’s a long way from happening, but I look forward to the day when people accept that fat isn’t the enemy (it’s sugar/vegetable & seed oils/tons of grains), and that saturated fat can actually be healthy. Yes. Seriously. The NYTimes recently featured coconut oil, so I have hope.

  • Googler

    I have worked at Google for about 9 months and I have gained about 30 pounds so far. Prior to Google, I was eating very healthy, made all my food myself, ate vegan or vegetarian most of the time, and knew the oil and calorie content of everything I ate. Working at Google, that was impossible. Yes, they had vegetarian entrees, but those were most usually vegetable dishes with lots of cheese or cream. To me, that is not a healthy vegetarian protein option, so I would end up eating the meat. And the grains were not whole; white rices and pasta were the only options. When you are eating buffet every day and you have no clue how much oil is in the sauce or dish, it’s very easy to drastically over-consume calories.

    Also, the green-yellow-red colors did not make sense a lot of the time. It seemed like there were many mistakes/oversights. For example, they would give something full of saturated fat, such as red meat, a green? And then place a high-fat vegetable product (like avocado) as a red. Just nuts.

    One day, this was the menu, no joke: sliders, wings, macaroni and cheese, potato wedges. With a salad bar. It’s not really possible to just stick to the salad bar for lunch because there wasn’t enough protein that way.

    It makes life soooo easy and convenient to have lunch prepared and free every day, and it’s great of the company to do it. The food is absolutely delicious. However, for me, it is less healthy than food I would prepare and eat on my own. I have noticed a severe decline in my level of health since joining the company.

  • Having healthier food choices available, and free, is to be commended. But the responsibility for regulating intake still lies with the individual. Healthy, whole grain, vegan, whatever–portions still need to be appropriately matched with need. Perhaps that means taking advantage of the abundant opportunities available to Googlers to be active–financial incentives to walk to work, bike rental on the premises, spin classes, yoga, discount gym memberships–does it get any better than this? Add to this the built in stress management incorporated into their worksite. Let’s not blame Google for the weight gain!

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  • Thib

    To MPP, how can you really truly say the Quaker bars and cookies are more processed than dark chocolate bars. Both are just as processed! To get what you see as chocolate bars, a lot of processing has to occur beginning with the cocoa pods that eventually when mixed with other ingredients become dark chocolate bars.

    I’m not disputing whether or not dark chocolate bars are healthy. I’m disputing your idea that dark chocolate bars are way less processed than other bars like Quaker bars and presumably granola bars. Bogus.

  • chuck

    appears gary taubes’ presentation at google had 0 impact.

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  • I worked at Google for over 4 years in HR.

    I now run my own holistic nutritional counseling and consulting practice…. and boy have I changed since my Google days. While I was based in NYC, I traveled to the main campus (pictured above) several times. The remote offices do not offer the abundance that the main campus does, but most offices emphasize healthy food as much as possible now. When I started working there in 2005, it was another story (snickers, doritos, twizzlers galore!). I do think Googlers could use some nutritional counseling regarding portion sizes and navigating foods. Even the healthiest food needs to be portioned out correctly and anyone with emotional eating (hello stressful fast-paced workdays at Google!) needs some coaching. It’s a great recruiting strategy and keeps employees there for many hours– but is it the healthiest approach?

  • CB

    The snack codes deduct more for sodium than they credit for fiber, no? Sun chips have twice the fat and sugar (per ounce, though as you say not per serving) of lentil chips, and marginally less fiber — but only 2/3 the sodium. I don’t think fat and sugar are the devil, but I don’t see that there should be a green/yellow distinction there! Especially as the lentil chips probably have higher protein. Heaven knows google doesn’t need the money but is it possible sun chips somehow subsidizes their higher rating?

  • Kathaleen Briggs Early PhD, RD, CDE

    Here’s a “second” for Lori’s comment above. Individual responsibility for calorie/energy intake and energy expenditure cannot be overlooked.

    The coding system could certainly continue to be debated, but overall I think Google is setting an impressive example for corporate America.

  • Vera

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  • Joe

    Here is the real point that can be made regarding Google foodservices.

    Even when an entity be it Google or government foots 100% of the bill and offers “healthy options” that there are still problems. This should stand as another glaring example to the “let the government fix it” crowd.

    Live and let eat!

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  • Googler

    To Lori and Kathaleen:

    Yes, it is up to the individual to be responsible for their own calorie/energy intake. But when you have a buffet every day, and don’t know the oil/calorie content of your food, how can you possibly know how many calories are in that spoonful? It’s impossible. Even for someone who has a nutrition background, as I do, there is no way to know what the calorie content is.

    Even if you keep up your exercise routine…if you’re completely in the dark of how many calories you’re consuming, it’s not really achievable. And if all of the dishes are dripping in oil…are we not supposed to eat anything?

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  • Kathaleen Briggs Early PhD, RD, CDE

    Weighing yourself once a week is one way to know if there’s an imbalance happening somewhere. One need not count calories to have a sensible diet that won’t cause weight gain, although I’m sure “there’s an app for that” for those interested in such tracking processes.

    Above you stated:
    “One day, this was the menu, no joke: sliders, wings, macaroni and cheese, potato wedges. With a salad bar. It’s not really possible to just stick to the salad bar for lunch because there wasn’t enough protein that way.” This is a pretty clear example of a high-calorie assembly of foods if consumed all together — probably most readers would agree on that assessment, regardless of nutrition knowledge. It’s not necessary to eat large amounts of protein at every meal. Protein is not a difficult nutrient for us to obtain these days. Most Americans can get by just fine on 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, but dramatically exceed this RDA.

    Perhaps Googlers faced with few/no low-cal options as described in the example above could make a salad with spring greens, spinach, arugula, cucumbers, carrots, beans, a small handful of unsalted nuts/seeds, and dressing on the side (using the dip-my-fork method) for lunch and have a larger portion of protein at another meal. I realize I’m making a big presumption that Google provides such wholesome (and a bit gourmet by some people’s standards) salad bar options, but this would be a totally healthy and balanced choice with some protein, loads of fiber, antioxidants, and lower in calories. Then there’s always that good old pack-a-lunch idea if you don’t like what’s being served option, too.

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  • sfs

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the money used for these changes would be used in consumer education instead of on coersion. The fact is that Ms. Obama (who, if you note, has NO formal nutritional education) has become an advocate for “healthy” food. This in turn has spurned many corporations to make these food changes. This screams backdoor politics to me. Remember, “there is really not much healthy food. Organic, free range, etc.,does not mean healthy food. What exists right now are healthy choices and HEALTHY EATING”. The food police (government) do not have to blow the whistles. Wake up people, our choices are being made for us. These choices, among others, are insidious in our everyday life.

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  • Yet Another Googler

    If you’re finding dishes that are dripping in fat or a cafe that isn’t serving a particularly healthy option that day, it’s easy enough to find another cafe to go to. In particular Nourish tends to be super oily, so I avoid it like the plague. Beta tends to be an unhealthy one too. Slice is typically a good vegetarian meal with plenty of protein and little oil. No Name also tends to have a good selection of unrefined starches.

    There are resources for finding out what’s being served where. Menu pages are available for all cafes (though some are notorious for waiting to post the menu until after closing – I’m looking at you, Bigtable). MenuMon is a great resource for finding what you like.

    Also, the article doesn’t point it out, but there are a huge number of fitness resources on campus. Commuting to work under your own power can be tracked for cash donations to your favorite charity, the participation during bike-to-work day was huge as well. There are gyms and sports leagues aplenty.

    When I joined (10 months ago) I was ~240 pounds. I peaked at ~245 a month later and then started getting aggressive about losing it. was great for (roughly) tracking my intake; I tuned my breakfasts to get high protein with low fats and calories (which resulted in me eating less for lunch); I started running on a treadmill or cycling (largely thanks to bike-to-work day). I’m actually down to 215 and still dropping – a lower weight than I was in high school.

    Any situation like this is what you make of it, but the various teams do a great job of raising awareness and giving you all of the tools you need to manage your own health. It’s up to you to use them.

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