The Digital Nose App That Spots When Food Is Spoiling

Last year I covered a couple of fascinating digital technologies that can sniff out particular smells.  For instance, one product can sniff out explosives, whilst others are capable of doing the same for diseases.  These digital noses are being put to a multitude of uses, from testing perfumes to industrial health and safety, but arguably the most common use case is in detecting food that is spoiling.

A recent study highlights the potential for consumer apps to do just that.  The project, from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, helped to develop a portable and easy to use electronic tag that sends wireless alerts to your smartphone when a particular gas is emitted by rotten food.

“Sometimes we cannot easily notice the slightly degraded food by smell or vision. Therefore, we aim to develop a cost-effective wireless sensor for food spoilage detection with the assistance of mobile phones,” the researchers say.

Reducing food poisoning

Foodborne illnesses are a big deal, striking some 48 million Americans per year.  The researchers aimed to tackle this issue by building a minute gas sensor capable of detecting the biogenic amines that are emitted when food spoils.  These sensors were then embedded within the same kind of near-field communication (NFC) tags that are used to track product shipping.

The system was tested on meat that was left out in 86 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures to see if the biogenic amines could be detected.  It proved effective in these initial tests, albeit the meat had to be within the NFC’s wireless range, which is under 4 inches.  This highlights both the promise of the technology and also the work still needed to be done.  The team believe it could be eventually sold to both consumer and industrial markets however.

“On the one hand, the sensor has shown clearly it has potential in daily life because it is very convenient and precise for consumers, only requiring a mobile phone embedded with an NFC module. On the other hand, this cost-effective method avoids complex equipment and trained personnel, which will appeal to the detection needs in large quantities for some food facilities,” they say.

Healthy eating

Suffice to say, they aren’t the only team working on technology in this domain.  Last year I wrote about a project being led by Clarkson University’s Silvana Andreescu that involves a portable, paper-based sensor that can detect when food is spoiling, as well as things like contamination and cosmetic spoilage in an easy to understand manner.

“I’ve always been interested in developing technologies that are accessible to both industry and the general population,” Andreescu says. “My lab has built a versatile sensing platform that incorporates all the needed reagents for detection in a piece of paper. At the same time, it is adaptable to different targets, including food contaminants, antioxidants and free radicals that indicate spoilage.”

The system uses nanostructures to capture and bind to the compounds they’re looking for.  This sets the project apart from others, who use solutions that migrate on channels.  The system instead uses stable, inorganic particles that are redox active.  When these interact with the harmful substances, they change color.

These are a sample of some of the projects that are underway around the world, but few have yet managed to make it to market at scale.  This underlines the challenges involved in turning clever science into a viable product.  It will be interesting to see if any of these teams can make progress towards that end goal in the coming years.