Photograph courtesy SCiO
Photograph courtesy SCiO
The Plate

New Food Scanner Helps Calorie-Watchers Identify Ingredients

A reporter recently asked me what I thought it would take for people in food deserts to demand better quality food; it may be a quick demo of the SCiO food scanner.

The Israeli-based startup Consumer Physics introduced its handheld molecular food scanner last month and has already raised more than $2 million in crowdfunding on Kickstarter. That makes SCiO one of the site’s highest-funded tech campaigns ever, and it still has six days to go. Even though most processed foods come with mandatory labels breaking down ingredients, calories, and carbs, eaters are hungry for more knowledge. And with the rise in both restaurant eating and small-batch artisanal foods, both of which which are generally exempt from many labeling requirements, calorie-watchers want to know what they’re getting into with that protein shake or bourbon sesame-seed caramel sauce.

New Tech Could Determine Ripeness, Sweetness

SCiO is tiny, only a few inches long, and looks like a laser pointer. Shine a light onto a piece of food and SCiO processes the object’s information through a tiny spectrometer, then connects with a smartphone to provide chemical information like calorie content, ripeness, even sweetness (although God help us all if in a year we’re all shining lights on watermelons in grocery stores and fighting over the sweetest one). It works for medicine, plants, and soil too, and the company offers a platform for developers to create new applications for, say, monitoring beer fermentation.

When people are empowered with information that was previously provided only by the government or by corporations, potential for backlash against the establishment is great. When people turn the SCiO on labeled foods and find the calorie count to be off, blame will be assigned. Remember the great Pirate’s Booty mislabeling of 2001, when a consumer discovered the snack to have 8.5 grams of fat per serving, rather than the 2.5 grams claimed by the label? The company survived but was vilified.

SCiO could analyze water quality and pollutants as well, opening public water treatments up to constant scrutiny. With the flash of the scanner, your smartphone will detect horsemeat from beef (look out, Ikea meatballs). Although not currently feasible, let’s say an app becomes available to sense chemicals on produce—if many fruits are mislabeled as “organic”, the effectiveness of the government’s certified organic program will be called into question. After all, regulations are only as good as the government’s checking and enforcement of them. Sourcing and traceability will therefore become ever more important, as people rely more on individual farms and food makers.

Can Technology Help us eat Healthier?

Which brings us back to people with low access to high-quality foods. If a SCiO app is developed showing that limp produce available in lower-income areas has less nutritional value than just-picked farmers’ market vegetables arriving in higher-income areas, will that finally make food the revolutionary class-driven issue it could be?

But calorie counts and weight loss applications will get most of the sexy media coverage, with SCiO being the natural tracking partner to activity trackers like Fitbit. Counting physical activity is hard but counting calories is even harder, with most adults underestimating their consumption by hundreds of calories per day. Even when restaurant calorie contents are listed, no one is ever quite sure they are getting exactly what is listed on the menu—a few extra blue cheese crumbles here, a heaping cup of nuts there adds up.

The whole premise behind food labels and calorie listings is the hypothesis that when people see what is in their food immediately before consuming it, consumption is affected. In reality, some studies show that many diners are not influenced by calorie counts. Anecdotally, most people’s eating varies from day to day—on some days seeing the calorie listing affects diners and on some days it doesn’t.

Human eating choices are a complex combination of factors that are in constant flux, including stress, mood, and hunger. Hopefully SCiO’s application possibilities will make it a food technology that actually leads to a more honest and better food system for all, rather than just clutters drawers like so many greater-wellness gadgets before it.

This story is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month Future of Food series.