It's impossible to know how many calories we're about to consume just by glancing at the food on our plate. That's why the researchers at GE are trying to build a universal calorie counter. Here's how it would work.
The quest to build a machine that can automatically count calories in any food was spearheaded by GE's Matt Webster, a specialist in diagnostics and biomedical research.
"I thought that this was crazy and impossible, but I took it as a challenge," he notes in GE Reports.
He began the process by scouring a massive food library compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — a database holding nutritional information for an astounding 6,500 foods (who knew there were so many?).
"I wanted to boil it down to a simple recipe that determined calories from a small handful of data points," Webster says. "Perhaps I could measure those data points with sensors and use them to calculate the calories in any food."
By analyzing various foods for their fat and water content, Webster and his team determined the average calorie density for certain foods. This analysis allowed them to devise an equation that estimates calories in food with just three simple measurements: weight, fat content, and water content. The remainder accounts for the combination of sugars, carbohydrates, proteins, and other ingredients.
As for the device itself, Webster's team, along with researchers from Baylor University's Department Electrical and Computer Engineering, are currently developing electronics and sensors that shower food with microwaves and look for fat and water signatures in the waves that pass through (water and fat interact with microwaves very differently).
The researchers are currently testing the system on simple mixtures of oil, water and sugar. They've got a prototype, but their ultimate goal is to create a push-button device that could be used in everyday kitchens. Eventually, they'd like to link the device to smartphone apps or a workout band.
Of course, calorie counting isn't going to tell you anything about the quality of the foods you're eating. Some high-calorie foods are packed with healthy fats and nutrients, like olive and coconut oils, nuts and seeds, dark chocolate, dried fruit (though they're also packed with concentrated sugar), avocados, eggs, and oily fish.
Perhaps Webster and his team can take the next step and design a machine that, in addition to calorie counting, offers common sense food advice to ensure a healthy and balanced diet.
[ GE Reports ]