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Edible Technology Should Whet your Appetite

RFID tags embedded in our food could change the way we shop, cook, and eat.
June 8, 2011

What if your food could talk?

A design engineering student at the Royal College of Art in London, Hannes Harms, has dared to ask that question—with a straight face. He envisions embedding food with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. “What if there were a way to embed data directly into food?” he asks in a video demonstrating the concept.

Why would you want to put RFID tags in food? Harms sees a whole host of reasons; RFID-tagged food would in fact enable a whole new food system, which he terms “NutriSmart.” Bar codes on food packaging would become obsolete. The supply chain would be monitored, shopping would become automated, and refrigerators—like this one—would be able to warn us when our food is about to spoil.

When our food is ready to talk, our entire kitchen will need to listen. To that end, Harms envisions an array of “smart” appliances—an oven that knows just what temperature to heat to in order to bake that filet of salmon, for instance.

Harms also uses the video to introduce the idea of a “smart plate” that acts as an “invisible diet management system.” Drop a cupcake or a sushi roll on the plate, and an RFID scanner embedded therein will read the tag in your snack. A Bluetooth-enabled tablet or phone would then pull up information about the food—calorie count, grams of fat, as well as less often sought (though just as important) information such as trading history and food miles. Suddenly, the vast journey that a morsel of food makes from farm to plate would become intelligible, even vivid.

One last innovation RFID-tagged food would enable is of particular interest to me, since I have a severe nut allergy. At every restaurant I go to, I’m constantly having to nag waiters and occasionally educate them about the difference between peanuts and tree nuts, about the perils of cross-contamination, and so on. A smart plate customized to know about my terror of cashews would save me the trouble. I’d simply load that delicious-looking but deadly dessert on my plate, and a flashing light would alert me to the danger.

The whole thing, of course, sounds almost so outlandish as to be a prank. But edible RFID tags are already in use in some medicines. RFID tech keeps cropping up in unlikely places—poker tables, golf balls, toilets. A Honolulu hotel recently claimed to be saving $16,000 per month by catching departing guests who “accidentally” try to make off with RFID-embedded towels (hotels in Miami and Manhattan are joining in in the experiment.)

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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