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To say we’ve come a long way with telephone technology since March 10, 1876, that momentous day when the iconic Mr. Bell first transmitted intelligible speech on his breakthrough device, would be an understatement. When he summoned his laboratory assistant, Thomas Watson, on the first phone by saying “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you,” Bell couldn’t possibly have envisioned that in 2018 and beyond, millions, perhaps billions, of people would be carrying a phone in their pocket or purse and many would be using their phone to analyze food.
Many smartphone-based approaches to food testing have been developed by scientists and start-up companies. “So far, we can distinguish smartphone-based spectrometers or food scanners for rapid non-invasive analysis of food products for macro-components (proteins, fat, carbs, moisture) and smartphone-based biorecognition assays for low levels of certain food contaminants,” says Michel Nielen, PhD, an analytical chemistry professor at RIKILT Wageningen University & Research, the Netherlands. Dr. Nielen is the coordinator of FoodSmartphone, a technology funded by the European Union’s (EU) Horizon 2020 research program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant for onsite testing.
“The primary challenge for food scanners is the robustness of the associated mathematical models needed to convert the rather nonspecific spectral fingerprint into a simplified, but still reliable, conclusion with respect to food composition,” Dr. Nielen says. “A major trend in food scanners is in the extension of the spectral range. Initially these handheld devices were mainly based on near infrared spectroscopy (NIR), but recently a prototype hyperspectral food scanner has been developed in the EU program PhasmaFOOD that effectively combines NIR, UV, visible and photography data.”
Dr. Nielen is quick to point out that there is an urgent need for industry professionals and regulators to have more efficient and effective monitoring schemes in the food chain. “Current approaches are costly, time consuming, and cannot prevent the thousands of food safety alerts and major food fraud cases and crises each year,” he laments. “Relative to consumers, they are increasingly interested in taking control of their own well-being. They already collect their physical health data and use a plethora of health, lifestyle, and food apps via smartphone. The next step for consumers is to control food quality and safety themselves, in order to assure, for example, the absence of allergens or the evidence of food being organic.”
The main challenges for smartphone-based biorecognition assays, Dr. Nielen says, are in the speed of the biorecognition, simplification of sample handling and purification protocols, robustness and ease-of-use, and remote and/or built-in quality control. “In the last decade, several appealing prototypes have been described, but in many cases incubation and washing steps took more than one hour and multiple manual pipetting steps were involved,” he relates. “Within FoodSmartphone, we accelerated the biorecognition of allergens to less than 30 seconds and will simplify assay steps by exploiting 3D-printed microfluidic approaches.”
A common concern for any portable food quality technology is in the quality assurance/quality control aspects. “The tests themselves might be nonvalidated and of poor quality, the operator may perform the test incorrectly, or the sample was incorrectly collected in the first place,” Dr. Nielen explains. “As a result, poor data may be shared with stakeholders and the general public through social media, and a lot of fake news may be generated. Therefore, novel approaches are needed with respect to built-in and remote real-time quality control measures and with respect to communication and privacy issues related to the data obtained.”