Digital tools — from hand-held scanners to intelligent cups and interactive apps — are set to take some of the guesswork out of eating by mapping exactly what’s in our food. Yet innovative digital health companies may go beyond these basics and create sophisticated nutrition-based algorithms to analyze the nitty-gritty of what we are consuming.
This means that we’ll soon be able to measure every last speck of whatever is in our food, and have it relayed at the touch of a button.
Tellspec Inc., a Toronto-based startup, launched from Indiegogo. With a recent influx of $1 million in seed money, it will be “the first consumer-handled device able to scan food at a molecular level.” Winning accolades from Forbes as one of the “Top 10 Companies Revolutionizing Entrepreneurship,” the company seems destined to produce one of the hottest digital devices in food diagnostics in 2016.
This may sound over-the-top to the average consumer, but for those living with high-maintenance medical issues in which every crumb matters, it could be a welcome addition to the error-ridden elimination process.
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With celiac disease, type 1 diabetes and tree nut allergies in my own family, I have become a voracious label reader (when labels are available). I search for traces of gluten, nuts and carbohydrates in anything we eat. A seemingly harmless crouton can ruin an otherwise lovely meal — and the ensuing week.
But armed with a laser that I can point at a store-bought cookie, my days as a “Food PI” (private investigator) may be limited.
“Right now the algorithm works very well at tabulating carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and calories,” Isabel Hoffman, Tellspec’s founder, told Co.Exist. “But we are very concerned with the allergies that we may not track down enough parts per million yet.”
Tellspec’s scanning device is set to hit the market by the end of 2016, targeting “diabetes, weight loss, pre-diabetes and obesity.” It will identify the 6 most common allergens: gluten, milk, peanut, egg, hazelnut, and seafood, using spectroscopy as a 5-second solution, creating visual displays on a smartphone app.
Among other tools gaining momentum is a San Francisco-based startup called Mark One, the company behind Vessyl. Its blue tooth-enabled smart cup “Pryme” hit the market after it raised $3 million in seed money for product development.
Vessyl measures caffeine, carbohydrates and calories in liquid consumables, while tabulating daily totals in the process.
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The company has taken some heat by reviewers with comments such as: “If you forgot what you just poured into your cup – look again.” But looks can be deceiving. When you’re left to wonder why your blood sugar is 300 after eyeballing the sugar load in a smoothie (that now has you in a food coma), you may be quick to appreciate what the new technology could offer.
Still, who says digital tools are enough when it comes to unlocking our relationship with food and health?
Zach Cordell, a Yale New Haven Hospital dietetic intern, warns that digital tools won’t function as a replacement for medical professionals who are trying to help the “whole person.” Without being “interpreted correctly and used appropriately,” it’s just good information.
“When tools such as Tellspec are fully functional, they will be excellent for people who follow specific dietary restrictions (with diabetes, phenylketonuria, or cardiac patients),” Cordell told LifeZette.
Tracking food can also be helpful for weight loss and maintenance. The National Weight Control Registry says that “people who track their food are more likely to keep weight off,” said Demsina Babazadeh, also an intern at Yale New Haven Hospital.
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Both Cordell and Babazadeh point to the functionality of information-sharing apps that connect providers to patients such as My Fitness Pal, FruitStreet and NuPlanIt.
App options such as ShopWell and FoodSwitch allow the user to scan food labels on groceries for nutritional information and ingredients to fit their individual needs prior to buying at the grocery store.
Google is in on the game as well, using advanced algorithms and still photos to estimate total calories contained on a plate of food with their Im2Calories system. The implications of these systems may reach far beyond our dinner plates.
Dr. Joel Dudley, an assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, took it all a step further. He said if someone were to aggregate “data from a food-tracking source like Tellspec with other data sources like 23andMe, uBiome, and even activity trackers like the Fitbit, they could start to make something that looks like a GPS map of health data,” he told FastCompany.
Jewels Doskicz is an Arizona-based registered nurse with 20 years of experience. She’s a passionate patient advocate and health consultant, and has lived with Type 1 diabetes since she was 13.