Meal Snap: Bad for Counting Calories, but Great for the LOLs

Last week, our editor asked if anyone was interested in evaluating an iPhone application called "Meal Snap." Since I both work in IT and write about food, this sounded like a perfect assignment for me. I love playing with new technology.

Meal Snap claims that you can take a photo of your plate and it will figure out what you are eating and approximately how many calories are in it. It seemed like a dubious idea, and I wondered if the application was any good. After all, I could stand to lose a few pounds. Being a food writer is hard on the waistline, and if Meal Snap worked, it could be a fantastic diet tool. I guess I could rely on self-discipline, too, but that hasn't worked yet.

Our recent dinner at Strata was the first test. In some ways, Meal Snap impressed us. It identified "breaded fish, potatoes" fairly accurately. (There were some veggies that it missed, but that wasn't a big deal.) Next, it accurately identified "kale with lamb, gravy and polenta," although I'd say the dish was more "lamb with polenta and kale." The calorie count range that Meal Snap came up with of 278-417 calories just didn't sound accurate. Either it actually thought kale was the primary part or it really didn't understand how big the lamb shank was. It was huge, and there is no way this dish maxed out at 417 calories.

It didn't do well at all with my pork schnitzel and bow tie pasta and cheese side dish. It identified the whole dish as an egg cutlet with 62-93 calories. I've never had an egg cutlet in my life (although I did find this delicious-sounding Indian recipe online that I might have to try).

Whoever programmed this app must have exotic tastes in food (not that there's anything wrong with that), because the next day it came up with impossible dishes that I couldn't even find on the Internet.

Next I tried the app on a box of homemade cookies and chocolate truffles. My guess at the number of calories in the box is about a zillion. Meal Snap, though, gave me carte blanche to eat the whole box. As far as it was concerned, it had no calories. And it identified the box's contents as "gufta pieces."

Gufta pieces? I could not find a definition for "gufta" that made sense. Urban Dictionary defines it as "the sand between your toes you seem to get after you go to a beach or wear socks for long periods of time," but what does that have to do with my desserts? Hopefully, nothing, ever. Gross.

Thinking perhaps the cardboard box the desserts were in had fooled the application, I took everything out and put it on a plate. Still, Meal Snap had no problem with me eating everything on the plate. It had been magically transformed into "filet ponda," again with zero calories.

Now wait a minute. I can't find reference to a "ponda" fish, but Ponda is a city in India. Perhaps this app was developed outside the United States and something is getting lost in translation.

Then, Meal Snap went from permissive to mean. In an effort to help it get something right, I put a lone cookie on a plate. Instead of estimating calories for one cookie, it accused me of having a couple! It then slammed me with a calorie count of 674-1011 calories. Yikes. By the way, these weren't "oatmeal raisin," either. They were chocolate chip and macadamia nut. Hmm, maybe that one cookie DID have 674 calories...

The final test: have Meal Snap assess something with a definitive number of calories, and see how it did. I selected a package of udon that contained 250 calories. Meal Snap decided it was "mango noodles" with a calorie range from 159-239.

While mango noodles sounds like an intriguing dish, and I like Meal Snap's calorie count better than reality, the truth is that this application, as is, really isn't worth the $2.99 asking price, except, perhaps, for the ensuing giggles.

This application could likely be improved with just a little input from the user, such as a basic description of what's on the plate. Meal Snap could then use the photo to get a little more detail and do the math for the total calorie count.

Until an improved version comes along, skip this app and get a more traditional calorie counting application, such as Lose It. I've had this free app on my phone for a while, and it's great... when I remember to use it.

Or, I could always just eat less and exercise.

Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook