Connected objects and dietary quantification : the limits of transparency
SIAL explores

SIAL explores - Connected objects and dietary quantification, the limits of transparency

Published on by SIAL Paris - updated on

In previous articles, SIAL investigated the emerging role of connected objects in the world of nutrition. Meant to track what we ingest, these questionably reliable gadgets continue to evolve, with the most recent strides in nutritional tracking coming from the connected health industry. SIAL dives back into the world of portable technology (aka “wearable tech”) that brings to mind Star Trek and Dr. McCoy’s Tricoder, that hybrid biosensor-spectrometer capable of diagnosing all types of pathologies noninvasively. Back to the future with SIAL.

Star Trek: the cult series inspiring the agribusiness industry

Star Trek

It turns out Star Trek’s Tricoder was no mere flight of fancy. Enter molecular nanodevices like the Airo bracelet from Canadian start-up Airo Health. This revolutionary bracelet uses Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) to analyse the quality of our diet. Nutrients in the bloodstream are detected via light spectrums of light that distinguish between proteins, fats, sugars and water.

Indeed, several start-ups in nutritional scanner industry are making use of this technology, among them Tellspec.

Tellspec

Since 2014, Tellspec has been promising a connected object capable of tracking one’s diet:

“The TellSpec scanner will identify calories, macronutrients, ingredients, allegens and chemicals in food and beverages, and inform consumers about the relationship between food composition, consumption and health“, the company said in a press release.

Readers of Frank Herbert will be reminded of the “Poison Snooper”, the gadget featured in the author’s 1965 cult novel, Dune. These imaginary tools made use of an olfactive spectrum in order to detect toxic substances.

After a few failures by TellSpec, it was Israeli start-up Consumer Physics that finally managed to democratize Near Infrared 

Spectroscopy (NIS), thanks to it’s SCIO application.

Bloomberg

Today, people call it the « Shazam of food », in a nod to the musical referencing application dedicated to recognizing tracks.

For Dror Sharon, cofounder of Consumer Physics:

"NIRS is the device that can change the way we do our shopping . [...] A useful guide to find the best tomato on the market " he said in the Hello World show ( Bloomberg)

Meanwhile, if Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) is old news in laboratories, it’s publicly available counterparts (optical nanosensors) require the ability to collect large quantities of information in order to be able to track the entire range of possible variations in food.

According to Oliver A. H. Jones, lecturer in analytical chemistry at RMIT University’s School of Applied Sciences:

“It looks quite interesting from the website information, but I think they are slightly overstating the capabilities of the instrument in their marketing”, he explained to CNET.

« Much of the data provided for the analysis seems to come from the user, and the rest could be based on algorithmic guesswork», he says.

Which would also explain the lack of precision and the subtle deception at play, two elements of this new technology often cited by the agrobusiness industry as well as distribution giants. Target, which has access to its users’ database of spectroscopic analyses, is a prime example. Greg Shewmaker, entrepreneur-in-residence at Target and cofounder of their “Future + Food coLab” laboratory explains the the main problem facing start-ups looking to expand into the nano-NIR industry:

“ To accurately identify the qualities in one particular apple, you would need to partner with a company that would give you access to millions of apples”, he tells FastCompany.

Born of a partnership between Target, MIT’s Media Lab and Ideo, spectroscopy is a subject receiving lots of attention at the “Food + Future coLab”. It is viewed as way to empower tomorrow’s consumers.

Casey Carl, head of strategy and innovation at Target, asks:

"What if, for instance, a customer could use a spectroscopy machine in the store to see how old a piece of fruit was? Could Target then do dynamic pricing on its produce?"

Perhaps fresher produce is the answer. To be continued.

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