Revealed in a newly approved patent from the US Patent and Trademark Office, the technology is based on ‘radio frequency identification’ (RFID) which allows for the transmission of data between an electronic tag and a reader.
RFID tags are already used in several industries including the pharmaceutical industry to help track medicines through warehouses. The invention allows retailers, or electronic vending machines, to assign nutritional information on a per-item basis, meaning users can mix and match foods as part of a larger order.
With the nutritional data stored on a user device, specific metrics can be applied to a health monitoring app responsible for maintaining user-assigned variables like a daily calorie budget. In some examples, the assigned nutritional value is deducted from a daily allowance, better informing users of what they should eat at their next meal.
Going further, Apple's invention also specifies techniques of estimating whether a user consumed part or all of a particular food item. An app might poll onboard motion sensors to determine whether a user moved their arm to their mouth, for example. Alternatively, data from biometric sensors measuring a user's heart rate might indicate that they were eating.
The technology presents an ideal alternative to current app-based solutions that rely on static databases of commonly consumed foods. Some systems also estimate the nutritional value of generic meals, while others require users to input metrics manually.
Whether Apple intends to include the invention as part of a future value-added service remains unclear, though the company would have to overcome substantial hurdles to implementation. Like any new service technology, wide adoption would be a major concern for a fledgling nutritional tracking product. Restaurants, grocers and other purveyors would have to invest not only in Apple's RFID technology, but also in the maintenance of a food nutrition database, employee training and other considerations.
Aside from shipping products, Apple has long been rumored to market a full-fledged health-tracking device, and those whispers gathered steam last year. Moving far beyond Apple Watch's heart rate monitoring functionality, Apple is purportedly developing hardware capable of tracking changes in user blood sugar levels. Specifically, a report last month claimed the company has for the past five years been working on noninvasive glucose monitoring sensors, widely considered a "holy grail" of modern medical technology.
Apple's RFID-based food nutrition tracking system patent was first filed for in April 2015 and credits Todd Whitehurst, Zachury Minjack, Zachery Kennedy, Dennis Park, Dylan Edwards and Anton Davydov as its inventors.