The Latest Weight Loss App

Sunday, June 12, 2011 // Uncategorized

  • The Wall Street Journal

I’ve written that there seems to be an Iphone  app for everything.  There are many that count calories.  This is the first that I’ve heard of that will estimate the calories of your meal. 

A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Calories

How does the addictive Meal Snap app know what you ate? A little magic and then some


Compulsive eating, I get. But compulsive food photography? If you’re one of those people who tweets and posts your meals on Facebook, I’ve always considered you a bit of a nut.

Koren Shadmi for The Wall Street JournalSnap a photo of a dish; the app will identify it and calculate the calorie count within seconds.



It wasn’t until I found Meal Snap, a $3 iPhone app created by Daily Burn, Inc., that I gained some insight into the food photo phenomenon. It’s an astounding tool: Snap a photo of a dish; the app will identify it and calculate the calorie count within seconds. But exactly how does it know I’m eating a chicken potpie? Though the creators chalk it up to “magic,” I presumed there had to be someone in Bangalore peeking at my snapshots. I asked Daily Burn’s CEO, Andy Smith, if this was the case. Smith’s answer was vague: “It is a combination of people and some advanced algorithms built on top of our database of 400,000 foods.”

Aha! But who are these “people”? Daily Burn wouldn’t elaborate, but technology expert Scott Steinberg, CEO of TechSavvy Global, speculates that they are likely “Mechanical Turks.” Says Mr. Steinberg: “Mechanical Turk,’s freelancing platform, puts up ads saying something like ‘For two to five cents, can you identify the food that is in this image?'” Interesting. So it may turn out that there are those even more obsessive than food photo fetishists—folks who figure out what others are eating for pennies a pop.

Make Those Photos Drool-Worthy

3 essential tricks to irresistible food shots

1. Head for the Sun. If you know you’re going to be shooting your meal (covertly and politely, of course) try to get a window seat. “Natural light that’s filtered through glass is always best,” says Penny de los Santos, a contributing photographer for Saveur.

2. Kill the Flash. If it’s dark and you’re shooting with a phone, your flash will make the most gourmet meal look like cafeteria food. Ms. de Los Santos recommends a dinner companion illuminate the dish with a candle, a flashlight app or multiple phones. It’s geeky, but it works.

3. Get the Big Picture.Everyone wants to shoot juices oozing out of a burger, but if you get too close it becomes abstract. For good composition, Ms. de Los Santos says to pull back and give the subject a little space. Food you can identify is always more appetizing.

With 50,000 downloads since its April launch, Meal Snap already has a cult following, myself included. But while most probably use it as an easy way to keep a meal journal and track their caloric intake, it was more of a game to me—I simply wanted to outsmart these “Turks.”

Starting easy, I snapped a Big Mac. The app immediately recognized it and returned the calorie range as 396-594. McDonald’s lists it at 540. Close enough. Then I tried to stump it with ethnic food. The mechanical Turk, not from Bangalore but apparently of Cajun heritage, identified Indian dal as “shrimp étouffée, 445-667 calories.” When a key lime pie returned “milk peas, 67-100 calories,” I thought, what are “milk peas” and exactly what part of Mechanical Turkey is this person from?

Feeling a little sorry for this Turk, I helped him out by submitting an optional caption for my next meal of rabbit roulade with cheese-stuffed squash blossom. A swift response gave a tight range of 239-258 calories, deemed correct by One last trick, a plate of dog biscuits, fetched: “Whoops! Not food!”

Meal Snap can be a useful, if sometimes unreliable, diet tracker. But for me, it’s a sport, an entertainment and more importantly, proof that technology is really only as good as the “magicians” behind it.

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