Uproar over the Google Maps cupcake calorie tracker shines light on digital health challenges

By Jonah Comstock
Share

Google briefly tested, but has either removed or planned to remove, a feature in Google Maps that automatically added calorie counts to walking routes, and even expressed the number of calories as an equivalent number of "mini-cupcakes."

The feature was rolled out on a test basis to some iOS users, but was rapidly panned on Twitter. In addition to a general feeling that the app was shaming or judgemental, individuals expressed concerns that it could have a negative effect on people with past or present eating disorders and that, because everyone's metabolism is different, the values were not usefully accurate. Users also pointed to the use of the (pink) mini-cupcake as offensively gendered.

After a number of complaints on social media, Google told TechCrunch and Buzzfeed it was pulling the feature “based on strong user feedback” and would have it removed by this evening.

Interestingly, prior to the outcry, many on digital health Twitter were applauding the move as one that could demonstrate some of the prevailing ideas in the space about behavior change — namely that subtle nudges from the tools consumers already use are an effective motivational strategy.

The whole incident illustrates how complicated those ideas are to put into practice, and how important it is for those in the healthcare space to be in touch with the sentiments of people outside the space. It may be the case that these sorts of behavioral nudges can be useful in promoting healthy behaviors, but many consumers were understandably irked that an app that they downloaded for a different purpose offered them unsolicited health advice.

Perhaps, had the feature been opt-in, or even opt-out, rather than appearing without warning with no off switch, it might have garnered a more positive reaction. On the other hand, the potential public health impact of the feature might have been lost were it not enabled by default.

Of note, Google already has an app for people who are interested in tracking their calories, Google Fit, which has been on the Play store (though not on iOS) since 2014.