Coffee during pregnancy? App tells you pros and cons of morning java

Using IBM’s Watson technology, Israeli-developed Nutrino provides clear health answers to nervous mothers-to-be

IBM's Watson competes on US TV show Jeopardy, January 11, 2013 (Photo credit: Courtesy IBM)
IBM's Watson competes on US TV show Jeopardy, January 11, 2013 (Photo credit: Courtesy IBM)

After having done it for untold ages, one would think that human beings would have some expertise – and definitive knowledge – about the correct way to go about having a baby. But that’s not the case at all, according to Yaron Hadad, PhD. co-founder and chief science officer of Israeli start-up Nutrino. “The sheer volume of data can be overwhelming, and, too often, the information that’s most readily available is contradictory.”

To fix that, Hadad and partner Jonathan Lipnik launched – with some help from IBM’s Watson big data intelligent analysis platform – a health app called Nutrino, “which helps people cut through the clutter of nutrition information with highly personalized recommendations so they can eat better and live healthier,” said Hadad. “Our nutrition insights platform is built on three pillars-machine learning, optimization and big data.”

As any expectant mother – and the prospective dads or significant others who live with them – knows, there is almost nothing more confusing than the simple act of having a baby. Can I drink coffee? What about exercise – is it a good idea or will it hurt my baby? Wine – yes, no, and if so, how much? Can I eat eggs? What does pain X mean? And is it dangerous?

These are questions pregnant women have had for eons, but even in the digital era, when information on anything is available in a few clicks, definitive information is still elusive – paradoxically, perhaps more than ever. An estimated 10,000 nutrition studies on pregnancy health issues are published each year in the English language alone – all of them properly vetted, and many of them contradictory – which makes it nearly impossible for anyone, and especially a naturally extra-nervous prospective mother to figure out the best course of action.

Hadad feels their pain – because he himself went through it. “When I was a teenager, I suffered from a bunch of pesky health problems, including migraines and sinusitis,” he said in a blog post about Nutrino. “By age 16, I’d had enough. Determined to feel better, I read dozens of nutrition books and tried a wide variety of diets. I found lots of conflicting theories and advice. Ultimately, after three years of experimentation with me as my guinea pig, I became a vegan. That resolved my health issues.”

Resolving the information overload

As a result, he and Lipkin developed Nutrino, which does the “heavy lifting” of data gathering an sorting for users. Although many of the nutrition studies out there are contradictory, most of them have little twists and nuances that make them appropriate to a specific situation. Is low-fat a good idea if you want to lose weight? Many nutritionists say that high-fat foods, especially proteins, are a much better idea for those on a diet, because high-fat foods are more filling, and as a result a dieter will be less tempted to engage in between-meal snacks. Nutrino analyzes studies and data (collected anonymously from other users), and makes recommendations based on a user’s specific situation.

What works for dieters can work for pregnant women, Hadad believes. But because the stakes are much higher for mothers-to-be, Nutrino has partnered with Watson – the data analysis platform that threshes through information and applies artificial intelligence to figure out answers that make sense. “Watson was built to show the capabilities for artificial intelligence and using and understanding natural language,” said Gabi Tal, one of the creators of IBM’s Global Technology Unit (GTU) in Haifa, where much of IBM’s Watson technology was developed. More than just a supercomputer, Watson is a platform, “a solution that will apply advanced analytics to a variety of industries, like healthcare, finance, and customer services,” said Tal.

Among the most important Watson applications the Haifa team has been working on is the Watson Health Cloud, which will “provide a secure and open platform for physicians, researchers, insurers and companies focused on health and wellness solutions,” said Dr. Aya Soffer, Director, Big Data and Cognitive Analytics at the Haifa facility. “We’ve had Watson study the medical literature, and now it’s ready to apply its natural language processing skills to real-life applications,” said Soffer. “You could say that Watson has successfully finished medical school.”

It’s that health cloud that Nutrion is taking advantage of in presenting answers to pregnant women, said Hadad. “We learned about IBM Watson when the computer beat two humans on the TV quiz show Jeopardy! We sought an alliance with IBM so we could make it easier for people to ask questions, to get simple answers and also to find out the reasons behind the answers they get—the why.”

Coffee, for example, is a question that is not too tough for the Nutrino-Watson team to tackle. Although there are millions of Web pages—many with contradictory answers – about whether drinking coffee is safe during pregnancy, the Watson-powered answer Nutrino users get is that “there is conflicting data on how much caffeine (a stimulant that exists in coffee) is safe to consume during pregnancy. Most of the data does not suggest an increased risk of adverse pregnancy when consuming less than 300 mg per day of caffeine. In order to stay on the safe side, many nutrition authorities recommend limiting caffeine consumption to under 200 mg per day. This means that you should not drink more than about two cups of regular coffee per day (1 cup = 8 oz). Please remember that coffee is not the only source of caffeine. Cola, energy drinks, black tea and chocolate also contain caffeine. If you consume any of them, you should limit your coffee intake even more.”

Problem solved, said Hadad. “Healthy eating — a challenge at any point in our lives — becomes that much more daunting during pregnancy, when a mom-to-be’s nutritional needs can fluctuate week to week. The Nutrino App Powered by Watson helps women navigate through a trove of available nutrition information and offers recommendations responsive to a women’s changing needs throughout her pregnancy.”

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