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Food labels are passe. New molecular sensor reveals what's really in your food

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:51 IST

Does your cereal really have less sugar than the other brands? Is your tea really enhanced with super berry extracts and is that really an egg-less cake? Whether you're allergic, health conscious or just plain curious, knowing what's in your food is an intriguing prospect.

And now it's a reality.

Companies like TellSpec, SCiO and others are leading an information revolution that will finally let you know exactly what the world around you is made of. From the sugar content of your morning cuppa to the allergens present in your Chinese takeout, their new molecular sensors can tell you exactly what you're putting into your body.

These new devices will show you what the world around you is made of, and they're just getting started

Not just food either, you can even tell the chemical composition of your medicines and the health of your garden plants. What's more, all of this is possible with affordable devices that fit in the palm of your hand.

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Photo: SCIO

The science behind it

For all its possibilities, the actual science and technology behind these devices isn't new.

It relies on the principle that different things have different molecular compositions and hence reflect light differently, giving each substance its own spectrum which acts as an optical identifier.

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Spectrometers to detect this have been around for decades. So the idea of learning the make-up of a substance through spectroscopy is hardly a revolutionary thought. No, the revolutionary part is how the technology has been democratised.

Up until recently the smallest of spectrometers were the size of a microwave oven and cost a ridiculous amount. Further, their output is useless to a layperson.

Not anymore.

Both SCiO and TellSpec have managed to create highly accurate handheld spectrometers that are the size of a really compact cell phone. With these, users are able to scan objects around them to find out their optical signature. But still, this information is useless to the everyman.

Which is where their cloud databases come in. Both SCiO's as well as TellSpec's devices sync to an app on your mobile phone. The app uploads the information received from the sensor to a cloud database that matches the optical signatures to their specific substances. The result?

A slow start, but a bright future

It sounds decidedly magical, but before you go throwing your money at the nearest molecular sensor, you might want to give it a little while longer. At present both devices are handicapped by the size of their spectrum libraries. Understandably too.

After all, it isn't as simple as scanning an object. Researchers have to scan the same objects over time so that the sensor isn't confused by deteriorating nutrients as well as understand the differences between different strains of the same fruits and vegetables. This takes expensive and time consuming testing in laboratories, meaning building these libraries is a painstaking process.

So at present, your straight-out-of-the-box SCiO can tell you the nutritional composition of your food and drinks, the health of common garden plants and even allow you to identify medicines or, conversely, the chemical composition of known medicines. It's enough to ensure you never buy a sour orange or a less-than-sweet melon again, but that's just the start.

As more users use it on new objects, and as the company itself researches new things, the more the library grows. And the more it grows, the further the technology goes.

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File photo

In the future, as the technology and database improves, we could potentially use these gadgets to even identify the ripeness of various foods. We could potentially identify foods containing pesticides. We may even be able to identify genetically modified foods, assuming these modifications leave an optical fingerprint.

Adulteration of foodstuffs and the presence of a vast spectrum of allergens from gluten to nuts to eggs could all be problems of the past. Errant food suppliers could potentially be hauled up for sub-standard food production practises.

Going beyond food, we'll be able to check the composition of cosmetics, clothes, soil, jewels and oils, literally changing the way we consume.

Edited by Payal Puri

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First published: 28 March 2016, 11:34 IST
Ranjan Crasta @jah_crastafari

The Ranjan (Beardus Horribilis) is a largely land-dwelling herbivorous mammal. Originally from a far more tropical habitat, the Ranjan can now be found wandering the streets of Delhi complaining about the weather, looking for watering holes and foraging for affordable snacks. Mostly human, mostly happy and mostly harmless, the Ranjan is prone to mood swings when deprived of his morning coffee. Having recently migrated to the Catch offices, he now inhabits a shadowy corner and spends his time distracting people and producing video content to distract them further.