A Necklace That Hears What You Eat Could Protect Your Teeth

Apr 07, 2016, by Dr. Becky Coats

Many people think that obesity is the biggest health crisis in this country, but the truth is that gum disease is probably a much bigger danger. While only about a third of Americans are obese, about half of them have gum disease. Given the perception that weight loss is the most important health intervention, it’s no surprise that there are many pieces of wearable tech designed to help you with weight loss, but no technology that’s designed to protect your teeth.

But that may be changing with a new necklace invented by researchers at the University of Buffalo. While it’s also designed as a weight loss aid, it might actually prove even more useful in helping you protect your teeth from tooth decay and enamel erosion.

It Hears You When You’re Eating

This new wearable tech isn’t modeled on the paradigm of a watch like, say, a Fitbit, but is more like a necklace or choker. That way, it can be close to your teeth and jaw, which is where it really wants to be, because it is listening to what you eat.

According to the inventor, “Each food, as it’s chewed, has its own voice,” and they hope to teach the device to recognize each of these voices. That way, the device will know what you’re eating and when.

The thought is that this becomes a new way to track food while on a diet–no longer do you have to input the foods you eat manually, which people can easily forget to do. Or may become less committed to doing over time. But this device won’t miss any instance of eating, and it may be able to more accurately record portion sizes because it can tell how much of each item you actually ate. Instead of filing the calorie content for the whole dish or trying to come up with your own estimate. It could probably be calibrated to your average size bite and may even be able to know when you’re eating a large or small bite.

Promise and Limitations

In initial testing, the technology showed promise. With 12 test subjects, a mixture of men and women, the device was able to identify the proper food being chewed about 85% of the time. Of course, since the only options were apples, carrots, cookies, peanuts, potato chips, and walnuts, it would seem that the system should be able to do better than that.

There are some other limitations the researcher acknowledges, such as that the system may not be able to tell the difference between plain corn flakes and frosted flakes, which would make a big difference for calories–and, incidentally, sugar. Plus beverages would be very hard to distinguish, and some complex foods would be hard to link to calorie content.

Some of these challenges can be overcome with the proper interface. The software associated with the device could be designed to prompt users to input unidentified foods and beverages. This could be done either audibly or by text message. And if audible prompting is preferred, it could ask it using a Bluetooth earpiece or maybe ask the question at night, perhaps just before bed. The software could be designed to “learn on the job,” building up its database of food sounds as it gets instructed. It could learn to integrate context clues, like “GPS says we’re at Starbucks” and “I heard her order a Grande Pumpkin Spice Latte” to automatically distinguish what you’re consuming when chewing alone doesn’t give enough information. Integration with a limited AI like Siri should be easy, or it could have its own persona that was keyed to the diet-program and could give positive feedback messages: “That sounds like a healthy salad” or “That sounds delicious–I wish I could taste it!”

Researchers expressed concerns that the device might have limited appeal because the choker appearance might not be in fashion. This doesn’t seem any more of a limitation than for more traditional wearable tech built on the watch model. Although chokers might be a slightly harder sell for men, with some modification the device could be integrated into a Bluetooth earpiece or even the temple of a Google Glass-like device.

How the Device Could Help Your Oral Health

One exciting thing about this technology is its promise to help improve your oral health as a side effect. Because the device would be able to track what you were eating and when, it could help you make tooth-healthy diet choices, avoiding sugary or acidic foods.

And when you’re eating is just as important for your teeth as what you’re eating. This wearable device would never miss any of your between meal snacks, so it would always be able to let you know when your diet choices are putting you at risk for cavities or gum disease.

And the applications go beyond preventive dentistry. The device could learn to distinguish what a healthy temporomandibular joint sounds like and warn you if you are experiencing symptoms of TMJ. After all, it’s not that far from electrosonography, which we use to help diagnose our TMJ patients.

Technologies like this remind us that, for all the strides we’ve made in recent years, there are still so many exciting discoveries just around the corner.

If you are looking for a Grapevine dentist who works at the leading edge of dental technology, please call (817) 481-6888 for an appointment at Grapevine Dental Care.