It’s no secret: Having food allergies or following a diet makes eating at restaurants and dinner parties extremely difficult. Are there nuts in your neighbor’s brownies? Is that frosting truly gluten-free? How many calories are lurking in those loaded nachos at the game? TellSpec, a handheld scanner designed to identify food allergens, nutrients and calories, hopes to take the mystery out of what’s on your plate. But can waving a device over a box of takeout really send the right stats to your smartphone?
More than one thousand Indiegogo users seem to think so. The campaign, which launched on October 1, has already almost doubled its original fundraising goal of $100,000.
Isabel Hoffman, TellSpec’s founder and CEO, began investigating how to make a device that analyzes food chemicals and allergens after her daughter had a severe reaction to gluten hidden in the icing of a restaurant dessert. Inspired to explore the technology she learned about in astrophysics classes while at the University of Toronto, Hoffman, she convinced Stephen Watson, York University math professor and now TellSpec CTO, to join forces and help make her idea a reality.
Evaluate Your Plate
Within the keychain-sized TellSpec hides its brainpower: a spectrometer, an instrument that measures the photons (light particles) in materials and essentially weighs molecules. While this tool used to take up a significant amount of space in laboratories, recent advances have made spectrometers smaller and more affordable. In the last decade, spectronomy has been used to test for steroid and drug use in athletes, measure toxins that could be used for bioterrorism, evaluate the atmosphere and composition of other planets, and analyze the compounds in future pharmaceutical drugs.
So how does this magical device work? When the TellSpec’s laser is pointed at a plate of food, it raises the energy states of the molecules so they emit photons. The spectrometer within the device then interprets the spectrum of photons and the app’s algorithms translate the energy state data into information about the foods’ chemical composition. All the nutritional data and biochemical information is then displayed on your smartphone.
Scan With Care
This all sound too good to be true? When we spoke with Hoffman over the phone, she told us that the TellSpec should not be considered a medical device since it will not be able to detect allergens 100 percent of the time. “The spectrometer goes below the surface [of foods], but its accuracy depends on the transparency of the food,” Hoffman said. Though TellSpec will be able to identify allergens in sponge cake or a dish of noodles, Hoffman said it might not recognize nuts hidden within a dense chocolate brownie.
According to Hoffman, as more users scan foods, the database of foods detected will grow, eventually allowing TellSpec to present more accurate information. “That’s the reason why it made sense for us to go directly to the consumer for the funding,” said Hoffman.
Tracking Takes Effort
While TellSpec might tell us more sophisticated nutritional info about our foods, it won’t necessarily make calorie counting any easier than apps that provide nutritional facts when users scan product barcodes or take pictures of foods. A consumer will still have to go through the effort of manually scanning each meal or food item and inputting the amount of food consumed, which can get tiresome over time.
However, this new technology could be a game changer for people with food allergies if it can live up to its claims. Researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies — roughly one in every 13 children. If consumers can tell which foods they should avoid by using TellSpec, it could potentially decrease the 200,000 emergency room visits per year that are due to allergic reactions.
And Hoffman hopes that this is just the beginning. TellSpec is offering its food analysis data to developers interested in using it to build relevant applications. Hoffman envisions apps targeted towards diabetics monitoring insulin and blood sugar, apps that work with 3-D cameras, and more.
If production continues according to schedule, the TellSpec will be delivered in April 2014 to backers who pledge over $200 on Indiegogo. When it’s widely available in December 2014, the device will likely cost $350 to $450.
Would you trust a scanner to tell you what’s in your food? Let us know in the comments below!