Google Is Turning Your Food Porn Into a Diet Log

A new app in development uses artificial intelligence to measure the calories in your Instagram pics.

(Photo: CulinaryBroDown/Instagram)

Jun 3, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

Instagram’s $35 billion net worth is rooted in its ability to distort reality. A friend of a friend photo-bombed your selfie? Crop him out, and he never existed. Feeling a little pale during beach season? Increase the contrast, and you’re pleasantly orange. Steak overcooked? Ramp up saturation, drop temperature, throw on a Hudson filter, and you have a perfect digital medium rare.

But a new Google-fueled artificial intelligence project called Im2Calories wants to shove some reality back into Instagram by calculating the calories in your food pictures. Research scientist Kevin Murphy and his team led a teaser demonstration at Re.Work’s Deep Learning Summit in Boston this past week.

The revolutionary technology uses an algorithm that measures the depth of pixels and analyzes the patterns to match the photo with the appropriate food listed in a database. It’s designed to work with low-quality photos, which makes it the perfect tool to pair with low-res Instagram images. Even though it might seem as if this is an app designed for diet shaming, the makers say it is intended to act as a diet log to aid people in keeping track of their intake.

RELATED: Digital Diet Diary: New App Rates Photos of Your Meal

“To me, it’s obvious that people really want this, and this is really useful,” Murphy said during the summit. “OK, fine. Maybe we get the calories off by 20 percent. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to average over a week or a month or a year. And now we can start to potentially join information from multiple people and start to do population-level statistics.”

So, Why Should You Care? Though counting calories is not the only measure of a healthy diet, it is quite possibly the most important metric in the fight against obesity. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in January 2012 concluded that calories alone accounted for excess fat gain in the participants. Other studies have shown that keeping a food diary is one of the best ways to track calories. In 2008, the Journal of Preventive Medicine published a study showing that participants who kept a diet log for six weeks lost twice as much weight as those who did not.

Although diet logs and food journals are incredibly helpful tools, problems tend to arise when it comes to self-reporting. People don’t want to admit—even to themselves—that they ate an ice-cream sundae at midnight, so it’s difficult to believe that they would want to broadcast it to the world via Instagram photo.

Im2Calories may not be 100 percent accurate, and people aren’t likely to analyze their entire diet through the app. But the technology is still seriously impressive—provided it, you know, works—and, in theory, could help people eat healthier.

Then again, it doesn’t take a robot to tell you your kale pic is healthier than a snapshot of a corn dog.