Wouldn’t you love to have a chat with Alexander Graham Bell, by phone, and ask him what he thinks about the latest smartphone innovations?
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.”
Despite all of the technological and social issues that need to be addressed, the forecasted sales of portable medtech devices is roughly $40 billion by 2022, Dr. Nielen says. “Many of these portables are and will be smartphone-based because of features such as excellent computing power, high-performance camera and battery, graphical user interface, apps and Internet of Things, wireless connectivity, and so on,” he relates. “Moreover, smartphones add global positioning system location and time stamp data, thus allowing geo-temporal mapping of outbreaks of diseases, for example. These trends towards ‘portable diagnostics for everyone’ and ‘near real-time mapping of issues’ will soon emerge for food quality and safety testing as well.”
Handheld Food Analyzer
New on the scene is the FoodScanner, a portable device that offers food sensing and analysis, courtesy of Spectral Engines Limited, Helsinki, Finland.
The FoodScanner concept utilizes the world’s smallest true NIR spectroscopy sensing module, advanced algorithms, and a cloud-based library to reveal the fat, protein, sugar, and total energy content of food items with good accuracy, says Janne Suhonen, Spectral’s chief commercial officer.
In March 2017, the Food Scanner captured the prestigious 800,000€ (approximately $950,000) Horizon 2020 Prize in a competition organized by the EU. “The challenge was to develop an affordable and non-invasive mobile solution that enables users to measure and analyze their food intake,” Suhonen explains. “We were able to differentiate from our competitors by developing both food scanning hardware and easy-to-use software, and combining them with smart artificial intelligence algorithms.”
Currently there are only a few non-invasive techniques for food content measurement, with the best and most-used being NIR spectroscopy, Suhonen points out. “This method is also used in agriculture and the pharmaceutical industry, but that hardware is much too big, expensive, and difficult to be used by a consumer,” he elaborates. “The FoodScanner presents a new, breakthrough technology that miniaturizes the required sensor hardware to a palm-sized device, with potentially the ability to be integrated into mobile phones and wearables.”
With the FoodScanner, fat, protein, carbohydrates, and energy content of foods can be measured below 5 percent detection limits, Suhonen mentions. The technology also detects allergens like egg and milk.
“A comprehensive spectrum library has been built by measuring 10,000 different food products,” Suhonen notes. “There are 14 different food categories, for example meat, milk, and alcohol and other beverages. New food products can be easily added to the library. As the number of measurements are growing, the smart algorithm improves the measurement results.”
Measurements with the FoodScanner occur in four steps. “A user makes a Bluetooth connection between our NIRONE wireless scanner and a mobile phone, then selects the desired food category to be measured,” Suhonen explains. “The sample is scanned, which takes roughly one second. Data is sent to a cloud where intelligent algorithms calculate the food nutrition facts and return those results to the user in one and a half to two seconds.”
The basic software can be further developed for different applications, such as detecting adulterated foods by creating libraries in collaboration with big food manufacturers, adds Suhonen.