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What's in your food? Tech will tell!

Mike Elgan | Aug. 8, 2016
Technology is empowering consumers with knowledge about what's really in the food we eat.

One approach to tech that informs about food is to build massive databases of knowledge about foods and food products.

The Sage Project is an initiative by designer and developer Sam Slover. The idea is to create food ingredient labels in the cloud, which can be accessed on the web or via a mobile app (the web version is now live and the mobile apps are coming soon, according to Slover). (You can listen to my interview with Slover here.)

Sage gets food information mainly from the manufacturers. Interestingly, Slover said companies were initially reluctant to provide the information but recently have been clamoring to do so. Separately, the food industry is reportedly discovering that unless food companies provide ingredient information, the public will seek it out from more reliable sources offering more transparency.

Sage lists food types (for example, "mandarin oranges") and food products (such as Theo Chocolate's Organic Fair Trade Orange (70%) Dark Chocolate Bar) in its nearly 20,000-item food database.

When you search for an item, you get nutritional information, fitness information (for example, an estimate of how much exercise you would need to burn off the calories) and, crucially, personalization. For example, if you tell Sage upon signup that you're a vegan, following the paleo diet or don't want any GMOs, Sage will warn and inform you with every search.

When possible, Sage will also tell you the source of the food or ingredient.

Slover told me that the mobile apps will take advantage of bar and QR codes to automate product searches.

The company also intends to explore food testing so its ingredient database reflects what's actually in the products, rather than what the food makers claim or what the labels list.

Another option, an iOS and Android app called IPIIT, also uses the bar code to call up information about food products. You can personalize it by adding specific information about any allergies or dietary restrictions or preferences. By scanning the product, you get a green light if it's OK to eat. Nice!

Other companies offer similar apps, and they often are helpful. But what consumers really need is a way to directly detect or test what's in the food that's right in front of them.

Handheld scanners that detect food properties

A $199 product called the Nima is a handheld scanner that can detect gluten in food.

To use it, you put some of the food in question into a disposable capsule and place the capsule into the triangular Nima scanner. Within two minutes, you get a ruling on whether any gluten is present in the food.


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