Food scanners take on the throw-away society

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Mountains of edible food are thrown away every year. Consumers are one of the chief culprits here, along with industry and retail. To prevent such waste, a pocket-size food tester has been developed to alleviate people’s worries about the edibility of food.

By 2030, studies project that 2.1 billion tons of food will be thrown out. Consumers in industrial nations are largely major offenders. The foods that they most frequently toss away are perishables like fruit, vegetables and grains. These foods fail to end up on consumers’ plates because they may have a blemish or two or have just passed their sell-by date.

The food scanner created by Fraunhofer IOSB is designed to provide consumers with worry-free enjoyment. The device determines the actual freshness level of foods – for both packed and unpacked products. There is really nothing new about the method. For years now, labs have been using near infrared spectroscopy to quantify ingredients. But the form and the price of this technology extend into a much higher dimension.

Infrared food scanners

The centerpiece of the affordable, mobile Fraunhofer device is a near infrared (NIR) sensor that can determine the ripeness and composition of a food. Infrared rays are beamed at the product, and the spectrum of reflected light is then analyzed. The absorbed wavelengths enable inferences to be drawn about the chemical composition of the food. The food scanner transmits the data to a cloud developed just for this purpose. Machine learning algorithms in the cloud then “calculate” the quality of the particular product and predict its shelf life. Once trained, the device can also determine the authenticity of foods like adulterated olive oil.

The Fraunhofer solution still has problems dealing with heterogeneous products that have a wide range of ingredients like a “pizza with everything.” High-spatial-resolution technologies like hyperspectral imaging and fusion-based approaches using color images and spectral sensors could help here in the future.

App for consumers

The consumer receives the results, which include information about things like the shelf life of a product under particular storage conditions, on an app. The test phase is scheduled to begin in supermarkets in early 2019: The aim will be to determine how well customers accept the device. Widespread use along the value chain, from the raw material to the end product, is one realistic possibility. If quality changes are identified at an early stage, alternative uses for foods can be found and waste reduced.

But the scanner is something much more than an instrument used to check food. It is really a universal, low-cost technology that can be quickly modified. It could also be used to distinguish plastics, wood, textiles or minerals from one another and classify them.






Foodscanner (Image: Fraunhofer IOSB).

Many edible foods end up in the trash. A small food scanner may be able to prevent such waste in the future. (Image: Fraunhofer IOSB).