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Scanning food for fat and sugar

Know thy shelf

The internet’s great but it won’t get you a better tomato. Jonathan Beckman tries out a molecular scanner that might

The internet’s great but it won’t get you a better tomato. Jonathan Beckman tries out a molecular scanner that might

Jonathan Beckman | December/January 2017

If you want to know about things that are far away from you in space or time, the internet puts the world at your service. Ask it about the influences on Kyrgyzstan’s pre-eminent poet or about the temperature fluctuations in the Permian Era and it will bury you under a pile of information. If you want to find out more about what’s happening right here, right now, digital technology’s offer looks a bit thinner.

That’s why I was excited by the idea of a molecular scanner called SCiO ($249), recently launched by Consumer Physics, an Israeli company. Its creators boast that it will enlighten you about the material world in your immediate environs. The general public can pre-order for delivery in early 2017; distribution has begun for backers of the product on Kickstarter – and me.

SCiO’s design is elegant and simple; it has the dimensions and heft of a Zippo lighter, and a single button turns it on and connects it by Bluetooth to an app on your phone. Once you have launched the SCiO, you hold it flush against the subject of your enquiry and near-infra-red spectroscopy will do the rest.

Dror Sharon, the company’s founder, assures me there are currently 2,000 more industrial and consumer applications under development, though, at the moment, SCiO primarily supplies nutritional information about foodstuffs. One in particular caught my eye – an applet for measuring the quality of tomatoes. “People seem to feel strongly about tomatoes,” said Sharon. Damn straight, I thought. I’m willing to forgive most culinary sins – overcooking, under-seasoning, even food poisoning – but woe betide someone who serves up an inadequate tomato, one of those hydroponically bloated abominations with the texture of damp feathers and the taste of polystyrene. So off I went to test SCiO’s accuracy.

My local supermarket is the sort of bobo joint where you’ll find young Octavius telling his mother he wants his Haribo julienned. Only once I arrived did it occur to me how odd my behaviour might look. A little self-consciously, I unsheathed SCiO. To the right of me, one of the employees was carrying out a stock check. I pressed the first fruit against SCiO. His brow tensed for a moment, as he pondered whether touching a tomato with a grey box contravened any bylaws. He decided it didn’t and continued down the aisle. To my left, a woman fingered the pak choi a little longer than necessary, her eyes flickering sideways as curiosity struggled against unwillingness to stare. No doubt an etiquette for carrying out near-infra-red spectroscopy in public will eventually develop, but in the meantime I dealt with the social awkwardness by filling up my basket with a ball pool of tomatoes and heading for home.

The results were intriguing. It turned out that a fancy beef tomato scored lower on the Brix scale – a measure universally accepted in the greengrocing world which bundles the sucrose, fructose, vitamins, minerals and all the other stuff that goes into making your peach peachy into a single number – than the supermarket’s own brand. SCiO accurately identified the ripest fruits, though did not notice when they’d begun to go soft – it’s good to know that the wisdom in these fingers will still have some use. I became thirsty for knowledge. I measured the cocoa percentages of chocolate and the amount of fat in cheese. And slowly, I realised I was falling into an epistemological chasm. The numbers matched up pretty neatly, but how much disparity was I able to accommodate between SCiO’s readings and the nutritional information on the packets’ undercarriages? Which should I trust more? Where once certainty stood, now two competing pillars of authority rose up. Was this what a post-truth world looked like?

Despite my growing philosophical unease, I enjoyed using SCiO. Most gadgets these days are “smart”, implicitly rebuking their users as too lackadaisical or inept to carry out the designated task themselves. SCiO, on the contrary, makes you feel like a Linnaeus or Von Humboldt, intrepidly expanding the boundaries of knowledge (all your readings are fed back into Consumer Physics’s database). I called my device Francis Bacon – after the great empiricist, not the guy who painted people with heads like burst tomatoes.

2 Readers' comments

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Kcin Regnad - November 27th 2016

Forgot.. also authenticate gold, silver, and platinum jewelry

Kcin Regnad - November 27th 2016

Nice idea, tried to find one, but all I came up with was it's still being crowdfunded and not available to the public. Really like to find one that could do mineral assay and detect counterfeit gold coinage and bars.