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Soft blobs with clear-cut edges (easy to pass). That’s the verdict on the slightly blurry photo of a subaquatic poo I just uploaded from my phone. The Moxie Poop Scanner says it uses AI to determine where on the Bristol Stool Scale – a diagnostic medical tool used to classify human excrement – my poo falls. And it’s a 4.7.
Below this evaluation are several headings: ‘what is it?’ in which the app describes the photo, ‘what does it mean?’ in which I’m told about my hydration and fibre levels and then ‘what should I do?’ where I’m advised on poo-tential improvements. (Sorry). The app asserts that while my poo may be “not great, it’s not abnormal”. As a result, I should keep an eye on any intolerances I may have and any ‘excessive use’ of artificial sweeteners or gums. I definitely had a soya-based vegan ramen last night that tasted as sweet as it did savoury, so maybe it’s that.
The Moxie Poop Scanner is designed to encourage us to seriously engage with our poo. “There are a lot of novelty apps out there,” says Louise Macnab, a co-founder of Moxie, “but we want people to use it regularly so they can become more comfortable with their bowel movements and sharing them with medical professionals.”
The model has been programmed to recognise different shapes and consistencies in photos and will refine in quality with every submission to the current web app. Macnab says the team is “aiming for October or November” for the launch of a fully functional mobile app which will “allow for tracking of the AI scanner analysis and correlations to be drawn.” It’ll need to be tested and go through regulatory compliance processes first too.
Medicine has spent millennia analysing excreta, and stool samples are, in clinical situations, integral to finding markers of cancers or parasitic diseases in the digestive tract. In 1997, the Bristol Stool Scale was introduced by medics and by 2004, the toilet of reality TV was dominated by so-called ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith. Her televised promise of You Are What You Eat manifested in her analysing, by sight, willing participants’ poo.
McKeith removed the ‘Dr’ title from her company’s advertising as complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Authority. (McKeith holds a PhD in nutrition and is not a medical doctor). Soon, her brand of proto-wellness, and all its pooey manifestations, went the way of peplum skirts, ringtone listings in magazines and the popularity of Booty Luv’s Boogie 2night: consigned to mid-aughts history.
In the decade or so since, wellness has grown from a softly-softly alternative to an austere medical mainstream into an aspirational lifestyle. The $4.2 trillion industry remains, however, pre-occupied with prettiness – Buddha bowls and toned midriffs – but the uglier parts of our viscera deserve some limelight too. Moxie isn’t a pioneer of reading poo like tea leaves, but it does bring this stigmatised discussion out from the wilderness.
And on a practical level? This app knows its shit, analysing my turds with some precision. Prudently warning users, a preamble on the site reads: “This application is for informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice or diagnosis and should never be relied upon for specific, medical advice.”
Once I flick this away, I’m met by a panel with the simple command: ‘upload ur poo’. Within seconds, the app provides its review. I upload a few different poos I’ve been collating for the sole purposes of this article. One, after a few ciders, is a 3.9 on the scale, a “silky-smooth, snake like poop”. Apparently I’m ‘in the clear’ and I should “keep doing what you’re doing. A high fiber diet, with plenty of H20 will keep your poop looking this damn good.
In practice, the app is not very user-friendly. First, as I mentioned, it’s currently web-based. The mobile app will allow users to keep track of multiple submissions per day or week and record details about diet and symptoms so patterns can be noticed; like a period tracker, just with photos. It’s also easier to locate Moxie’s e-commerce page – selling chaga mushroom powder, grass-fed collagen capsules and cashew milk – than it is to access the scanner right now. Second, taking a photo of your own excreta is a risky business. The only thing more unedifying (other than writing about this in great detail for you, dear reader) is that, to get a sinker into shot, you have to zoom in and focus on your own poo.
Also, Moxie’s app seems incapable of recognising what isn’t poo. As a control, I upload a morning selfie. The app ‘decodes’ this with a 2.3 rating, describing my face as “lumpy logs that are very sausage textured.” It means, I’m told, “you’re constipated and will most likely feel as though you haven’t completed your bowel movements”. I’m instructed to “watch the progress for about a week, while increasing the fiber and levels of H20”. And if it – my face – lasts longer than a week, “we advise for you to speak to a doctor or functional medicine practitioner.”
As for those medical practitioners, Dr Megan Rossi is a registered dietitian (RD) based in London, with a PhD in gut health from the University of Queenland’s Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “Poop can tell us a lot of information and if we start to see a significant change in our poop then that could be our body telling us something’s up,” she says. She also believes that the internet has allowed people to have less stigmatised conversations about their gut.
However, Rossi is sceptical of the Moxie scanner’s potential role here: “I don’t know whether an app is necessarily the answer. People should just be taught the Bristol Stool Chart, or the seven poops. Three, four and five are normal, and if you have ongoing ones that are one, two, six or seven, have a chat to your GP about it.”
Rossi’s concerns are twofold. First, this app is “not targeted at the people who need it [older people are more at risk of bowel problems], it’s targeted at the worried well who are sometimes more at risk of health anxiety than the conditions they are worried about developing.” Second, Moxie’s website sells a few items – including bone broth and a hormone vitality kit, that, Rossi says amount to “unevidenced based products. The founders seem to be taking this down the wrong way.”
In response to the criticism, Moxie told us: “Moxie firmly believes that a person’s stool can reveal incredible insight into their overall health. Changes in shape, texture and colour of your stool can reveal digestive issues, lack of nutrition, signs of infection or in some cases even cancer. The scanner cannot diagnose precisely what that health issue is but what it does do is provide a tool to help you on your journey to better health.”
Regarding the wellness products on sale, the Moxie team say that bone broth is recommended by some gastroenterologists as it contains protein and inflammatory bowel disease patients are often recommended to increase their protein. Although the Moxie team adds: “we agree that there isn’t any ‘strong evidence’ because it’s not like bone broth is a pharma product so there haven’t been clinical trials.” On the hormone kits, Moxie’s co-founders say they have had “significant first hand experience” of home hormone tests helping to alleviate their gut issues and the test they sell is HIPAA compliant. They “acknowledge that the role hormones play is not yet widely accepted in the gut health field.”
It’s easy to write off the analysis of our poo, but delving into this kind of crap can be incredibly worthwhile. Every human’s gut microbiome is a complex and unique ecosystem, and scientists from Stanford to Bhopal are exploring its relationship with our mental health, our immune health and our general health. One simple, non-invasive way to collect data required for the very technical task of biome analysis, is to get someone to, very simply, shit into a tub.
The clinical analysis of poo by biologists and medics is quite different to the tech required for an AI scanner glancing at consistencies of poo. Yet on its landing page, the Poop Scanner loftily claims to “take snaps of your poo to determine how healthy you are”. Meanwhile, Moxie’s online presence doesn’t always beam with legitimacy. On its Instagram account, it warns people can be “a victim to…sugar’, describes the four sweat types as ‘emotional/hormonal/meat/gym’. Moxie says that the reference to sugar wasn’t a health claim.
While practically tricky to use, this app could be a great way of getting in touch with our poo and its consistencies, for anyone who is not so au fait with the Bristol Stool Chart. Learning more about our most rancid of bodily functions, especially for those 20 per cent of Britons who experience irritable bowel syndrome is, broadly, a good thing. Taking seriously the decrees of an app that purports to tell me how healthy I am and recognises poo in my face? Perhaps not.
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