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Should iEat? Testing Food Ripeness with a Smart Phone

It could be a reality, with novel mini-spectrometer technology.
May 11, 2012

“Everyone’s a critic,” sighs the artist. But with new smartphone technology, average folks like you and me could take our criticism to new mediums and industries entirely. “Everyone’s a quality tester,” the industrial food producer may soon be sighing.

Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute is developing a miniature spectrometer that Food Production Daily says “will pave the way for instant quality analysis of whether fruit is ripe or if meat contains too much water.” The device, which is smaller than a sugar cube, uses near infrared technology to assess starch, protein, water, and fat content in food–and you wouldn’t even have to unwrap the goods to test them, since the spectrometer works across a thin layer of plastic. The device won’t be able to perform microbiological or toxicological analysis, according to Fraunhofer–but it will be able to see if food is ripe or water-logged, and give you instant advice on whether to buy or not.

You know the type (and maybe you are one, yourself): the man who spends a solid three minutes squeezing each and every plum in search of the perfectly ripe one, or the woman who holds the ground beef up to the light, scrutinizing it from multiple angles. Now imagine hordes of these people whipping out their smartphones and scanning item after item, package after package. This may be our food-shopping future.

The technology itself is not entirely novel, according to Fraunhofer. The principles here are well understood: simply shine broad-bandwidth light on a piece of food, which will reflect different near infrared wavelengths of varying intensities. A device measuring the spectrum reflected back can then infer the properties of the item being scanned.

The real breakthroughs here are the ways Fraunhofer has shrunk the technology and inched it towards affordability (and therefore, commercialization).  They’ve hacked a clever way of automating the mass production of the things, by using large silicon wafers capable of holding the components of hundreds of the spectrometers. (It’s a two-step process actually, wherein wafers with integrated components and wafers with optical components are stacked and fused–and it yields stronger spectrometers than traditional manufacturing by hand, reportedly.)

In a follow-up piece, Food Production Daily wondered whether the tech would render professional food technologists obsolete. Far from it, replied Stephen White of Qadex, a food safety company. He said that the device might in fact create “more work and headaches, with the need to respond swiftly as issues emerge on social media which are outside the control of the food industry.” Food, incidentally, isn’t the only industry that stands to be transformed by the democratization of quality testing; cosmetics is another one, reports And Fraunhofer, in its initial release, suggested that the device could also detect forgeries, test drugs, and even show whether a car has been repainted or not.

You can’t rush out and buy the device just yet–give Fraunhofer a solid three, four, or even five years to get the thing to market. But steadily prepare yourself for an era in which food-purchasing fussiness is more widely available, accessible, and precise. You’re used to whipping out your smartphone to photograph a particularly elegant entrée. Oddly enough, you may soon be doing the same to scan a piece of raw poultry. 

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