Google’s Dangerous Use of Data: Calorie Counter Controversy

As the largest, most-used search engine in the world, with a global market share of about 90 percent, Google has no shortage of data.  In turn, this means they have no shortage of data/information about us (our likes, dislikes, activities, current interests), as you well know based your own internet experience.  This wealth of knowledge, however, does not mean that Google is infallible. Like every other organization, it is not immune to mistakes, and it can still misread the market.

In October, Google Maps rolled out a test for a new tool, a calorie counting feature on its iOS Maps app (shown below).  This extension would show users how many calories they would burn if they decided to walk to their destination rather than drive. The app would then convert those calories into the equivalent number of mini cupcakes: “This walk burns around 313 Calories — that’s almost 3 mini cupcakes,’ reads a message within the app’s walking directions.”

Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 4.43.57 PM.png Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 6.47.31 PM

While the creators were likely trying to promote a healthy lifestyle, their test ignited extensive controversy as shown below.

“NO, @googlemaps, I want directions. I don’t want your perpetuation of f— ing diet culture. You have 1 job. Just, no,” wrote Twitter user Spoopy gal.

Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 4.08.15 PMScreen Shot 2018-02-13 at 4.09.55 PM

Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 4.14.43 PM.png Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 6.05.01 PM.png

As CNN Tech points out, calorie counter features are not necessarily new. Apps, like CityMapper, already show how many calories walking from Point A to Point B would burn. This app, however, does not have as many users as Google Maps and does not include a cupcake comparison. With the widespread fitness craze today, calorie counters exist on many technologies. They are standard to devices such as the iPhone, Fitbit, and Nike Fuel Band, among others.  And for some, this test feature was not a problem…

Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 4.54.32 PM

Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 4.16.01 PM

Many sources agree, however, that this feature was not rolled out appropriately for a few reasons.  To begin, the calorie counting feature was never publically announced.  As it was experimental, it merely appeared on the Google Maps app for some, but not all, iOS users. For those who viewed it as an aid for healthy living, it was a pleasant surprise.  For others, the app was an upsetting discovery, something they believe should require you to “opt-in.” In addition, it was unclear or difficult to turn the feature off, further angering users who were not enthused.

Secondly, as demonstrated above, many people took offense, specifically, to the way the app translated calories into the number of mini-cupcakes burned. Social media sources, like Twitter, exploded with comments linking the pink pastry icon to fat shaming as well as a trigger for the estimated 30 million Americans alone who struggle with eating disorders. Those familiar with the illness pointed out “that compulsive calorie counting is a warning sign of some disorders such as anorexia. Others said the feature made them feel unfairly judged or shamed.” According to Jennifer J. Thomas, co-director of the Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General, “It implies that foods like cupcakes need to be burned off instead of being part of a balanced diet.”

The test feature was also controversial based on its mysterious measurements for both the caloric content of mini-cupcakes and the number of calories burned by walking. While mini-cupcakes from various sources can range from 97 to 200 calories, Google had decided that its cupcakes were 110 calories. The app further claimed the “average person” burned 90 calories per mile, without describing who the “average” person was or how they determined it. Most people with knowledge of anatomy or physiology understand that “the number of calories one burns while walking can differ extensively depending on how fast he or she is walking and how much he or she weighs.” Without knowing this information, it seems presumptuous for Google to make those calculations or decide who the “average” candidate is.

In the face of so much backlash, Google quickly shut down the feature. While some people on Twitter accused Google of giving in to political correctness, I believe this was the best move for the company. In Google’s defense, there is no way to ensure that they never insult or upset anyone.  As a global business, they serve billions of people of varying ethnicities, religions, backgrounds, and lifestyles.  They can, however, do as much research as possible before releasing new products and act rapidly when they realize they have made a mistake.

In the recent past, calorie counting has undergone extensive debate. Laws in some states (and across some national chains) require restaurants to post calorie measurements on their menus and displays, in an effort to reduce obesity levels in America.  Though this practice is intended to encourage Americans to eat more thoughtfully, it can also become a point of obsession” to those with eating disorders, according to experts. As Stephanie Zerwas, a clinical director of the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders points out “those with eating disorders might instead fixate on the number, a dangerous mindset that counselors try to minimize.” I will admit that the negative implications of such a feature were not apparent to me immediately. When a friend had mentioned this issue, it just seemed like a silly/simple way to illustrate calories to the average joe.  After just a bit of reading, however, I had uncovered my own subconscious bias, similar to what certain Google employees have probably found. Now, it is easy to see how this use of data is dangerous. While incentivizing people to walk is not a bad thing, I don’t believe Google chose the right method to do it.

Zerwas explains: “We’ve gotten into this habit of thinking about our bodies and the foods we take in and how much activity we do as this mathematical equation, and it’s really not. The more we have technology that promotes that view, the more people who may develop eating disorders might be triggered into that pathway.”  Although data can be incredibly useful when it provides insights that can help us, we must remain wary.  Science can become unscientific, and the information is not always accurate. This supports the idea that diversity of thought in any organization is key.  We will probably never know the truth about who/how this feature was developed.  It is likely, however, that Google would have benefited from greater diversity in thought before releasing this test to the public.  In her interview with the New York Times, Dr. Zerwas provides a good alternative to the Cupcake comparison.  Rather than telling you how many calories you would burn or informing you about the number of cupcakes you should/shouldn’t eat if you walk, Google could use its knowledge of weather in your area to suggest walking on days that are nice or comfortable. “Let’s encourage it because it’s fun, it feels good, it helps you think and you can enjoy the gorgeous weather,” she said. I cannot agree more.  What are your thoughts?





  1. addisonBC2018 · ·

    This is a really interesting article! I know I personally go through various calorie counting obsessions and would LOVE if Google told me how many calories I’d burn on a walk, instead having to use other technologies to calculate it. However, I think the Zerwas quote makes a good point, it isn’t healthy for us to think about our body’s activity in terms of balancing out an equation. I still personally don’t see much wrong with this feature, but I think it could be advertised better to inform the user of the feature and give the user the option to switch it on, rather than automatically implementing it.

  2. kikinitwithraf · ·

    Spoopy gal said it best, “I want directions…You have one job.” Its one thing to offer consumers another product/service, but to expose consumers to something they haven’t opted in to is a bit brass on Googles part. While the intentions may have been for the greater good, I could see how this information can be sensitive. Personally, I see it as Google shaming others for not walking, being active, or perhaps indulging in their favorite snacks. And just like the post states, “how do you know what the average person is that they’re describing.” This is a great example of a company trying to do to much, and with not enough background knowledge. Im not saying Google is a sup-par company, but with competition with Strava, Garmin, Fitbit, etc., they were a bit out of their league. The last thing I need is a GPS telling me to turn left and wave to a McDonald’s as I drive to my destination.

  3. roarkword · ·

    It’s interesting how much furor can come from something I’m sure Google saw as a win win. The app gets an additional functional benefit to leverage with customers and it did so in a way that utilized data it already had access to; however, its obvious that not much beta testing was done about the perceptions of different possible customer bases. Google could also be acutely aware of congestion plaguing multiple cities across the US and using this to incentivize walking. I don’t see this as something nefarious, calories have always been represented in units of food equivalents. In the end, social media has provided a grandstand for any and all upset customers to voice their opinions and companies cannot roll out additions as nonchalantly as they might presume that they can.

  4. jamessenwei · ·

    Thanks for blogging about this, Molly. I think that the polarizing interpretation of this feature are extremely interesting. I have to confess though, I fall into the camp that thinks this would have been okay. Personally, I thought that using mini cupcakes was a funny and cute way to measure calories. Clearly Google and others need to tread more carefully. Despite my own thoughts on the feature, Google has sort of an obligation to offend as few people it can; removing the feature was the right move. I wonder, though, if not having the cupcake comparison would have made the feature better for those who were offended. As you say Citymapper does the same thing and it seems like they did not have a social media fallout over it.

    Once again, Twitter proves to be a great way for companies to interact with their customers and receive feedback, even if that feedback is outrage.

  5. Great post, Molly! Echoing Kikinitwithraf, Google Maps is a widely used application for directions, not for fitness. While I support promoting health and fitness, that is not the job of the app. The demographic of an audience that wants to know the calories they can burn from a 20 minute walk isn’t necessarily the same or as narrow as Google Maps users. I believe if Google wanted to compete in the fitness realm their best bet would be creating a new application purely for that or introducing the option to use the “Mini Cupcake” calorie counter on Google Maps, rather than automatically and uninvitedly adding this feature for the masses.

  6. This is the problem with an engineer-driven company. They can develop a fairly useful new feature, but then totally create a PR backlash because they just don’t see that everyone might not like the feature.

  7. RayCaglianone · ·

    I lean more towards liking Google’s idea than disliking it, but I do think the use of the cupcakes as an indicator of calories is bizarrely flippant, and I can understand why people don’t like it. It makes me think of the health app in my iPhone. I don’t check it obsessively or even every day, but it’s nice to peek in every once and a while and see my step count or calories I may have burned throughout the day when I wasn’t really thinking about it, some nice voluntary positive reinforcement. Of course, that app came with my iPhone, so I think the situation is pretty comparable – I didn’t “opt-in” to that either. I think if Google was a bit more subtle about this roll-out (scrap the food emojis), it might have stuck around a little longer, and maybe even became the norm.

  8. tylercook95 · ·

    This post is really cool and could be tied to how technology affects our mental health as well. Google could be seen as suggesting people need to lose weight with this app and the measurement of cupcakes suggest that people want to eat unhealthy things. Body images due to social media and unreal expectations have become a huge problem in the last 10 years which has made it very hard for people of all ages to accept their body size. I think it’s obviously important to be healthy and I think Google must have been coming from a good place with this because in theory, this is a great motivator to live a healthy lifestyle. MAybe if they had made it an option on the app and had different measurements other than cupcakes people would have accepted the new features more easily. In practice people are already under the constant scrutiny of their bodies and Google does seem a bit intrusive. It’s like when Netflix asks if you’re still watching. Like yes I know I’m being lazy right now Netflix you don’t have to remind me.

  9. mariaknoerr · ·

    I appreciate that this post reminds us that even the technology gods are not perfect. Google has made mistakes that have cost much more in the past. I see this as an example of Google trying to do too much too fast without enough market research. While there were many ways they could have launched this feature, they chose the path of maximum speed. I personally do not think this would be a negative feature as an option users can control, but forcing it upon everyone is a bit controlling. It reminds me of when Apple changed its setting to location tracking automatically on with a new software update. While there are many cons in this scenario, one of the pros is that Google can and did act quickly to undo their mistake. Capabilities are only valuable if there is a market for them.

%d bloggers like this: