Point This Magical Scanner At Your Food And It Will Count The Calories

The TellSpec could be the missing link for people watching their weight or trying to avoid certain ingredients–if its creators can manage to bring it to the market.


Today there are wearable trackers available for just about every move you make and step you take. Almost. If there’s a missing link, it’s the ability to track all the food that enters a person’s mouth. Dieters are stuck tediously logging their eating habits.


TellSpec, a device that’s quickly raising money on Indiegogo, claims to be that missing link and more. With a wave of the hand, the device can reportedly calculate all the calories, ingredients, chemicals, and allergens in any given piece of food.

Developed by entrepreneur Isabel Hoffman and York University math professor Stephen Watson, TellSpec is a raman spectrometer (the same kind of technology used in Jack Andraka’s $15 cancer-detecting device) that uses an algorithm to calculate what’s in your food.

Hoffman first came up with the idea because of her young daughter, who experienced mysterious physical symptoms that were caused by allergens. While eating dinner one evening with Watson, she picked up a flash drive and explained her vision: “Imagine a device the size of a flash drive that could scan food, scan the air, and tell me what kind of pollution I encountered today.” Watson told her that he didn’t think the technology existed.

Raman spectrometers, which essentially shoot lasers at objects and evaluate their chemical composition, used to be big, bulky instruments that sat in laboratories. These days, it’s entirely possible to make a handheld version. Hoffman’s question was whether it could do what she was looking for.

Watch Hoffman and Watson explain the details of how the device works in their Indiegogo video:


In sum, the laser scans food and measures the light that’s reflected back. That information is sent to a smartphone app that uses TellSpec’s algorithms to measure the qualities of what’s in the food. Hoffman says it takes about 30 seconds on average to get a reading, though some dark foods take longer.

As with all wish fulfillment products (this one is for the health nuts), there are plenty of caveats with TellSpec. That 3-D printed device seen in the video? It doesn’t actually exist yet. The food analysis engine has been tested with three different kinds of spectrometers, but Hoffman and Watson have yet to make a prototype of the product they plan on selling.

While the analysis engine is complete, TellSpec also hasn’t yet built a database of food and toxins. That’s partially what the Indiegogo money is for, according to Hoffman.

The pair is currently in discussions with optical companies who might want to manufacture the TellSpec. Hoffman, meanwhile, stresses that their real innovation is the analysis engine. “As soon as we finish the campaign, we will be devoted to miniaturizing the spectrometer and making the price of the final prototype slightly cheaper,” she says.

Another caveat: Anyone with serious allergies can’t rely on the TellSpec for accuracy. Say you want to scan a dense piece of dark chocolate that contains a single nut fragment. The TellSpec won’t be able to find the fragment unless you cut the chocolate open, making the nut easier to find.


Hoffman is hopeful that the TellSpec engine will learn from the crowd. In other words, if another TellSpec user previously scanned the same chocolate and found the nut, the engine should be able to predict that the nut is there. She also has visions of the TellSpec engine integrating with all sorts of other devices–maybe Google Glass, smartphones, or a separate fitness tracker.

Another startup, Airo, just announced its plans to build a spectroscopic wristband that can measure food consumption, heart rate, sleep, and exercise. Airo, however, also has no working app, let alone a working prototype.

We can’t judge whether TellSpec is the real thing until it’s in the hands of scientists, researchers, and the general public. For now, backers have to rely on trust–and considering the fact that TellSpec has raised nearly $100,000 at the time of writing, with 19 days left in its campaign, plenty of people have no problem doing that.

TellSpec is offering backers the device and two years of unlimited food scan analysis for $150.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more