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Hand-held scanner promises to reveal what is in your food

Several startups are raising money to build hand-held scanners that they say would use lasers to identify the chemical properties of our food.

Want to know what's in the cookie you are about to eat – either from a taste, allergy-awareness or nutritional-content standpoint? Several startups are raising money to build hand-held scanners that they say would use lasers to identify the chemical properties of our food. They promise a revolution.

Who is making them?

Toronto-based Tellspec raised almost $386,000 on Indiegogo to build its device; meanwhile Israel-based Consumer Physics has raised $1-million on Kickstarter for a similar scanner called SCiO, "A Pocket Molecular Sensor for All." Both are promising a hand-held gadget that will connect to your smartphone, and within a few seconds of scanning, will identify the compounds in your food – all for a couple of hundred dollars. The key claims are that caloric content could be calculated, not to mention the detection of allergens. Both firms acknowledge that this technology can only scan the surface of a sample food – anything snuggled inside wouldn't register.

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How would it work?

Both companies plan to use variations of Raman spectroscopy, a well-established laboratory method of identifying chemical compounds by their unique vibrational frequency. One of the discoveries of photonics (the field of study involving light) by Indian Nobel Prize-winner C.V. Raman was that molecules reflect light in identifiable ways, which you can detect if you are measuring the reflection of a light source (such as infrared, laser etc.). Recent advances in miniaturization have taken bulky spectrography research rigs out of laboratories and will, someday, put them into your hands.

Who is driving this?

Clearly, there is consumer interest, but right now the big research money in this area is coming from the food and drug industry, as well as the military. The applications range from quality control, to the detection of food-borne pathogens or toxins, and yes, to nutritional information. Currently, to get accurate readings of chemical composition, you need to take a physical sample of the food you want to test: Technology that could perform mass, non-invasive scanning is of huge interest to makers and processors of food or drugs.

Do they work?

The experts are skeptical. "I would not come out and say they are wrong," says Amr S. Helmy, a professor of photonics at the University of Toronto. Because these firms don't make a claim of the accuracy for their scanners, he can only go off the published research, which suggests between 30- and 50-per-cent accuracy at best. Helmy says the main problem is "frames of reference" for the food you are scanning: The scanner can only tell you some of the compounds present, it can't account for portion size, the preparation method, the origin of the food. "The quantifying issue is very hairy," he says. And as for detecting allergens, "You have to have a ginormous concentration of allergens" in order to detect them with these lasers, far above the trace amounts that could cause a reaction.

When will hand-held scanners be available?

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Experts in the field, including Helmy, suggest the technology needed to get an acceptable level of accuracy, as well as a global database of potential compounds for reference, is still five to 10 years away. "It is becoming an extremely hot area," says Helmy, who is doing research on the kind of fluidic photonics he says you would need to make more accurate readings. Also, he says the amount of money raised so far is likely only a drop in the bucket compared with what's needed to get to market. (Our attempts to reach Tellspec for comment were directed to a U.S. PR firm, and the company's founders were said to be out of the office.)

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