One year on from the horsemeat scandal, which brought to light how little we know about food supply chains, there is still widespread uncertainty about the way many products are sourced and produced. Could a new solution from a Canadian start-up end our ingredient ignorance?
TellSpec, founded by Isabel Hoffman and Stephen Watson in Toronto in 2013, has developed a product that can scan your food and tell you what it contains, flagging up, in particular, the presence of gluten, pesticides and preservatives. The scanner itself is built around a handheld spectrometer. A low-powered laser passes different wavelengths of light through the food molecules during the scanning process, providing the device with information on the compounds in the food. This information is converted into an electrical signal, then digitised and sent to the user’s smartphone via Bluetooth.
The digital spectrum of the user’s food is sent online to TellSpec’s ‘analysis engine’ – a programme on one of the company’s servers which processes the data and compares it to reference spectra. An algorithm then selects information about the food from a large database and customises it for the user. A phone app, able to display the results within seconds, provides them with a list of the ingredients and their quantities.
The product is primarily aimed at the diet market, allowing users to monitor their daily calorie and essential vitamin intake. In future, it could also be used to help allergy sufferers. But for conscientious consumers, its appeal lies in the ability to “go beyond the label”, as Hoffman puts it, and find out exactly what’s in their food.
Food companies can currently exploit regulations to withhold certain ingredients from the list on the packet: traces of dangerous food dyes such as Tartrazine are not always noted, for example. Solutions like TellSpec’s could nourish an appetite for transparency among consumers, and might ultimately prompt companies to interrogate their own supply lines to avoid being caught out.
“This is a good example of an innovation that will help consumers who are concerned with both the sustainability and health aspects of their food to make more informed choices”, says Mark Driscoll, Head of Food at Forum for the Future.
TellSpec claim their solution can successfully identify foods and their ingredients about 97.7% of the time, and plan to partner with university researchers to test the product further. They are also attempting to crowdfund a smaller, sleeker version of the scanner. – Alex Fenton
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