New technology to enhance nutrition assessment

Thursday, 14 December 2017


Researchers from the University of Newcastle have received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a new technology system for assessing food and nutrient intakes of people who live in low and lower-middle income (LMIC) countries.

Research team for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant.
Dr Shamus Smith, Dr Marc Adam, Professor Clare Collins, Dr Megan Rollo (middle) and Associate Professor Tracy Burrows.

Malnutrition affects almost half of the world’s population and can have a severe impact on the development of a child, including stunted growth, cognitive deficits and an increased risk of cardiovascular or respiratory diseases.

Led by Dr Megan Rollo, the research team will develop and evaluate the Voice-Image-Sensor technologies for Individual Dietary Assessment (VISIDA) system, to overcome limitations in current methods to measure individual intake in LMIC settings.

Also an affiliate of the Hunter Medical Research Institute’s (HMRI*) Cardiovascular Research Project, Dr Rollo said the system will consist of a smartphone app and wearable sensors that capture information from the surroundings.

“Current methods for assessing dietary intake in these countries can be resource-intensive, in terms of time, people and costs, which means that current data on individual intakes is not available to make decisions about nutrition-related health in these regions.

“An advantage of the smartphone app is that it removes the need to weigh or estimate the amount of foods eaten and having to write down information. Instead people will take a photo of their food and record a brief voice message.

“The app will guide people through all the steps, including collecting information on how the food was cooked and any additions which are difficult to detect from the image alone. The voice record provides a level of detail that is important for measuring specific nutrients and therefore whether there is a need for micronutrient supplementations,” she said.

“The image and voice data from the app will be supplemented with data coming from wrist-worn sensors to indicate whether a person is eating or not.

“This unique project brings together a range of experts from nutrition and dietetics and computer science to achieve major developments in the area of technology based dietary assessment. This is likely to lead to new applications in other regions of the world,” she added.

Once developed, the VISIDA system will be tested in Cambodia and Tanzania, with a focus on women of a reproductive age and children up to the age of five.

“Nutrition-related conditions, including stunting of growth and deficiencies in protein and micronutrients are common in children from low-to-middle income countries. This has negative impact on their immediate health as well as their cognitive and physical development.

“The adequacy of a women’s diets prior to, during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, affects their health and that of their child long-term. Technologies such as ours will assist in accurately measuring the nutritional adequacy of the usual eating patterns and this will help to optimise health during these critical life stages,” Dr Rollo said.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aims to improve people’s health and reduce extreme poverty in developing countries. The grant is an initiative of the Foundation’s Nutrition Program which focuses on preventing deaths and burden associated with malnutrition.

The research team will be comprised of leading academics in their field, including Associate Professor Tracy Burrows, Dr Marc Adam, Professor Clare Collins and Dr Shamus Smith. The project will run for two-and-a-half years and is valued at AU$1.7 million.

* HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.