Big Data

Accelerating the Nutrition Revolution with Cognitive Computing

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When I was a teenager, I suffered from a bunch of pesky health problems, including migraines and sinusitis. By age 16, I’d had enough. Determined to feel better, I read dozens of nutrition books and tried a wide variety of diets. I found lots of conflicting theories and advice. Ultimately, after three years of experimentation with me as my guinea pig, I became a vegan. That resolved my health issues.

Now I want to help others address their health and nutrition goals.

I’m convinced that we’re in the early stages of a global nutrition revolution. People are increasingly aware of the links between nutrition and health, and, thanks to the Internet and a host of wearable devices, they now have mountains of information they can use to help make themselves healthier and happier.

But the sheer volume of data can be overwhelming, and, too often, the information that’s most readily available is contradictory. That’s why my friend Jonathan Lipnik and I started Nutrino, which helps people cut through the clutter of nutrition information with highly personalized recommendations so they can eat better and live healthier. Our nutrition insights platform is built on three pillars-machine learning, optimization and big data.

Nutrino is designed to compress the broad knowledge that exists in nutrition, and turn my three years of experimentation and research into a few minutes for other people.

We launched our first product two years ago for the general public, and today, we’re announcing a new version of Nutrino—this one designed specifically for expectant mothers. With an assist from IBM Watson, we have produced an app that guides women through pregnancy with the goal of improving their health and the health of their babies.

The new app can be downloaded from the Apple App Store and will be available later on Android. The pregnancy service costs $15 for the full 42 weeks.

We set out to develop this new version of Nutrino after we found that many of our initial users were attracted to Nutrino because they had special dietary needs. Some had food allergies or sensitivities; others were vegan or vegetarian; many were pregnant. A number of pregnant women reached out to us asking for more detailed information and guidance.

We learned about IBM Watson when the computer beat two humans on the TV quiz show Jeopardy! We sought an alliance with IBM so we could make it easier for people to ask questions, to get simple answers and also to find out the reasons behind the answers they get—the why.

Type the question “How much coffee can I drink when I’m pregnant?” into a traditional Web search engine, and you’ll get millions of Web pages—many with contradictory answers. Type or speak the same question into the new version of Nutrino and you get a much more useful response:

“There is conflicting data on how much caffeine (a stimulant that exists in coffee) is safe to consume during pregnancy. Most of the data does not suggest an increased risk of adverse pregnancy when consuming less than 300 mg per day of caffeine. In order to stay on the safe side, many nutrition authorities recommend limiting caffeine consumption to under 200 mg per day. This means that you should not drink more than about two cups of regular coffee per day (1 cup = 8 oz). Please remember that coffee is not the only source of caffeine. Cola, energy drinks, black tea and chocolate also contain caffeine. If you consume any of them, you should limit your coffee intake even more.”

The response also includes scientific references that are the basis for Nutrino’s conclusions. You can click and learn more.

The new app is especially useful for expectant women who use wearable devices to monitor their exercise, sleep and other activities that become even more critical during pregnancy. If the device detects that a woman isn’t sleeping long enough or awakens too often, it might suggest to her, unbidden, to compliment her diet late in the day with foods that contain the natural sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, such as almonds or raspberries.

We’re looking forward to getting feedback now that we have launched the new app, so we can improve it. We have been getting valuable input from alpha and beta users. One of them is Jonathan’s wife, Daffi, who is pregnant with their third child. A few weeks ago, when she was on vacation in Thailand and was looking at a menu in a restaurant, she asked Nutrino if she should eat prawns. In a blink, she got the answer back: all clear.

That’s the kind of story that convinces me we’re on the right track.


To learn more about the new era of computing, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing.

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