Nutritional gadgets and apps (Part 2): Healthy tech – From losing weight to upping vegetable intake

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08 Jan 2018 --- Nutritional gadgets and apps appear to be here to stay as part of the space. In this part of its special report, NutritionInsight explores the companies and ideas dominating the technology in the nutrition space.

Progress tracks weight loss with selfies
In order to track health and wellness in the modern age, where better for the millennial generation to start than with selfies? “Finally, a good excuse to take a selfie!” note the creators of the app Progress.

The app is providing an answer to a common complaint of people embarking on weight-loss programs: it is difficult to see any progress, so motivation naturally dwindles over time. By giving the app a name that refers to this problem, the creators have shown that they are addressing the concern head-on.

By providing a transparent version of the previous day’s picture, the app makes it easy align the images and eventually note the progress made. By pressing and holding the photo strip, users can look through the progress that has been made over time in a manner that makes it easy to see.

FoodMarble: breath test for stomach problems
Irish startup FoodMarble’s AIRE goes straight for the gut. It is designed to help people who struggle with digestive problems such as bloating, abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhea. Sometimes these symptoms are triggered by the body's response to particular foods, and AIRE helps figure out which foods are causing these problems.

The device has received €1.45 million (US$1.68 million) in funding from a number of international and Ireland-based investors. The company was set up by academics Aonghus Shortt, Lisa Ruttledge, Peter Harte and James Brief.

“AIRE is not designed to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition,” the company notes. “The device is like an activity tracker for your gut. It determines how your body responds to different foods you eat. Over time, it will allow you to find the foods most compatible with you.”

FoodMarble also notes that AIRE is not designed to detect gluten-related issues.

Potentially life-saving US$40 iEAT food allergen detection system
Gadgets of the future could also save lives. A US$40 portable allergen-detection system – including a keychain analyzer – could help prevent potentially fatal trips to the emergency room, researchers reported in the journal ACS Nano. The system is called integrated exogenous antigen testing, or iEAT.

“Producers are more aware of this problem and doing their best. But still, hidden allergens are hard to control,” study author Hakho Lee told NutritionInsight in September 2017. “They may come from food additives or cross-contamination. For example, we found gluten in French fries, which is likely from the oil used for frying.”

To use the device, users first put a bit of food on the “antigen extraction device,” which is a single-use slide that performs the necessary chemical deconstruction. This is then plugged that into the iEAT device itself, which is small and light enough to fit on a keychain and contains the electronics necessary to analyze the prepared food sample.

Within ten minutes, the device should be able to tell users whether any given allergens are present, and if so, how much. The iEAT detects even smaller amounts than lab tests. 

Click to EnlargeSCiO scanner and Changhong H2 phone
Sichuan Changhong Electric Co. (Changhong), a leading supplier of consumer electronics in Asia, has collaborated with Analog Devices Inc. (ADI), a global designer and manufacturer of semiconductor products and solutions and Consumer Physics, Inc. to integrate breakthrough SCiO material sensing technology into mobile phones.

Changhong H2 and its advanced molecular material sensing and identification technology will, for the first time in human history, allow consumers to scan material and immediately receive actionable insights based on its underlying chemical composition, the company points out. This will allow for exploration of physical surroundings as never before, the company promises.

CSIRO app turns eating vegetables into game
Scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have taken an innovative angle to tackling the issue of low levels of vegetable intake in Australia by launching the new VegEze app that challenges Australians to eat more vegetables using a gamified approach.

“Gamification features of our app include badges, leader boards, and challenges,” explains CSIRO Nutrition Scientist Gilly Hendrie. “We have drawn on these as they have the potential to facilitate behavior change by increasing motivation. Gamification allows you to set goals and track progress for achieving them, tapping into the key elements of behavior change. Plus gamification can make an everyday task more fun to achieve.”

Despite the scientific evidence about the benefits of vegetables, increasing vegetable consumption in the population remains a challenge, Hendrie notes. “Most campaigns to increase consumption have had limited success. For example, it was estimated that the Go for 2&5 multi-strategy Australian social marketing campaign increased vegetable consumption by 0.3 serves in the short term, and by up to 0.6 serves at its peak after three years,” she points out. 

“Reviews of literature suggest interventions in the general population can increase consumption by 0.3-0.6 serves or up to 1.4 in a more controlled environment,” Hendrie adds. “We are aiming to increase consumption by 0.5 to 1 serve per person per day – which is similar to previous research. However, unlike more traditional research studies, we are hoping to reach a large number of adults to participate in the research trial – amplifying the impact.”

“Along with changes in consumption we are hoping to increase people’s self-awareness around their own dietary habits and willingness to change their ways,” Hendrie says. “Following the evaluation, this app may continue to be available in Australia free of charge.”

Thinking more broadly about app and gadget platforms, Hendrie believes consumers have a desire for self-improvement and the sheer numbers of health and nutrition-related apps and the growth in this market is interesting. However, she cautions that very few health and nutrition apps are evidence-based or evaluated, so their effectiveness is largely unknown.

“This ‘unregulated’ marketplace is also interesting,” Hendrie adds. “On one hand consumers [are reported] to trust health information and advice from qualified experts such as doctors, but increasingly they are seeking their own resources/solutions to assist them in their personal health journey. The healthcare landscape is changing with digital technology and how this unfolds will be very interesting.”

Looking to the future for the CSIRO app and others, Hendrie says that currently, the interactions with most health and nutrition apps are one-way interactions, as consumers either receive information or input information in the form of self-monitoring.

“There is the opportunity to leverage mobile technology to provide just-in-time, interactive and adaptive features within nutrition apps,” Hendrie observes. “For example, you receive notifications that your favorite vegetables are on special at the supermarket you are about to drive past, so you grab some on the way home. Using technology in this way may accelerate change.”

“Wireless, Bluetooth, burden-free self-monitoring techniques will emerge to track and monitor what, when and how people eat,” says Hendrie. “This will vastly increase understanding of food choice and eating behaviors, and allow for more tailored programs to be developed.”

The next step for nutritional gadgets may be unknown, but their integration into the space has been thorough. As the future’s potential health challenges continue to mount, their range of uses will certainly be interesting to keep track of.

By Paul Creasy

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