One part bad tech to two parts snake oil: Calorie counting devices keep getting more ludicrous

By James Robinson , written on July 8, 2014

From The News Desk

Scanning the news this morning, when I came to reports of GE’s calorie counting microwave, I almost spat up my coffee. GE researchers have developed a microwave that by scanning the fat, water and weight of the food you’re heating up can work its caloric value.

The catch? The food must be pureed first.

So... really, technology useful for… babies looking to stay in shape and dietary conscious people without teeth?

Every new device that promises to scan your food for its caloric content seems to be only a lesson in expensive, high tech inanity. Vessyl is a $200 cup that tells you the nutritional makeup of your liquids. As Recode reported when they reviewed the device, when it poured in Coke and Starbucks coffee, the cup recognized… Coke and Starbucks coffee. Spitting back information at the user that they knew already, for free. And nutritional information is readily accessible on all Starbucks menu boards and Coke cans anyway.

Even at the risk of looking stupid, people really do want to get a calorie scanner to market. Consumer Physics’ SCiO molecular sensor earned $2.8 million on Kickstarter and when I tried it myself, it could count calories with a roughly 10 percent error rate. It's technology that sounds great, but maybe isn't entirely thought through. I just can’t imagine long term anyone seriously toting it to a restaurant (wait till the Google Glass set is pretentiously scanning their plates in restaurants), outside of someone with, say, a serious food allergy.

This calorie counting quest is happening on two fronts. Neither are proving successful. When it’s not ludicrous gizmos that are hitting the market or going up for crowdfunding, it’s Russian snakeoil salesmen looking to convince you a solution to this calorie problem is really just an algorithm away.

I trailed the Healbe Indiegogo scampaign to the ends of the Internet and sat with them in person and watched them try desperately, and with a spectacular lack of success, to explain to me how even if they could accurately assume glucose how they claim to (which they can’t) how that glucose reading may be able to help them calculate caloric intake. It can’t.

Apple, Google and Samsung are all pursuing glucose monitoring, Apple and Samsung with smart watches, Google with contact lenses. Someone will eventually crack the formula for measuring glucose non-invasively. It will stop tens of millions of diabetics from having to literally draw blood each day. As Glucovation’s Ken San Vincente explained to me recently, who is working on his own only monitor, outside of diabetics, we can know a lot about our dietary health just by looking at how the body regulates blood sugar. The calorie part isn't as useful as we think.

All of the above mentioned, presumably science-based companies, stay miles away from making the glucose to calorie equivocation. As San Vincente said simply -- like many other experts I've spoken with -- that’s because there’s no link.

The path to calories through glucose seems closed. So we’re left with actually taking a scan of the physical food and processing it in the cloud, which feels goofy and clunky and ultimately ineffectual, packed with redundancies and margins of error.

It is the tech equivalent of a fad diet. People have been trying to hack the formula to stay slim -- looking past the obvious answer of eating right and being active -- for centuries. In 1820, Lord Byron feasted only on apple vinegar and water in an attempt to look good. In the 1920s, Lucky Strike maintained that cigarettes were a good dietary supplement. Like a Cliff Bar that kills you. The Grapefruit Diet came out of Hollywood in the 1930s. Atkins had his thing.

As The Verge reported last month, even Weight Watchers thinks that calorie counting is a stupid idea.

But now, thanks to the apparent modern rule that if a gadget can be invented to do it, a gadget must be invented to do it, we have a rash of Rube Goldberg-esque scanning solutions and Healbe’s straight up pseudoscience, all playing to an idea that if something can count our calories for us and take the decision making out of eating, we should pay big money for the privilege.

Progress is great and all, but my bet is still on turning down desert and taking a run a few times a week.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]