This Tiny Scanner Will Soon Be Able to Tell You Exactly What’s in Your Food

No more guessing if your supermarket beef is halal or horse meat.

A groundbreaking technology currently being developed by three companies will allow people to optically scan food to find out exactly what’s in it. You’ll be able screen leafy greens for E. Coli right there at the produce stand, for example, or determine if that prestigious ’96 Merlot is in fact two decades old.


TellSpec and SCiO are two firms currently working on handheld scanners designed for consumer use, while retail giant Target has already started to implement optical scanning in its supply chain. SCiO’s scanner currently sells for $320 and is capable of identifying the percentage of fat, carbohydrate, protein and water found in cheese, yogurt, milk, meat, fruits and vegetables.

The goal is to evolve the scanner down to the size of a grain of rice so that it can fit into your smartphone, which can likely be achieved “during the administration of the president we’re deciding on right now,” according to the Washington Post. Food columnist Tamar Haspel explains the technology as such:

Every substance reflects (and absorbs) light in a different way, and the graph of that reflected light is a kind of optical fingerprint. Except it’s better. Although the whorls and lines in our fingertips don’t say anything inherent about their owner (See that swirl? Doesn’t mean you’re smart.), the peaks and valleys of the optical fingerprint do. That peak there is vitamin C. That other one is sugar. This pattern means gluten.

Identifying a food and its characteristics based on the scan is a twofold job: First, you simply match the optical reading to a library of known objects; second, you read the topography of the graph to zero in on specific characteristics. The two together can tell you an awful lot about what you’re scanning.

While the technology’s function is currently still limited in scope – determining if your maple syrup is in fact tree nectar or corn-based goo, for example – experts believe it will be able to perform more complex functions within just a few years. This includes the ability to detect gluten in products, identifying adulterated spices, and revealing foods that have been genetically modified.

“This is the ultimate lie detector,” says food tech pro Brent Overcash. “Strip away the branding, labeling and messaging: What is this thing?”

The implications for personal consumption are vast, but the technology’s impact on food supply is even more enormous. Implementing optic food scanning in the upper rungs of the food chain could prevent mass recalls over safety concerns after food has already hit shelves, as well as push back best before dates to a more realistic threshold to curb food waste. It will also block mislabeled, fraudulent and expired products from entering the consumer food supply in the first place.

With an app a week claiming to “revolutionize our relationship with food” – settle down, UberEATS – this technology actually has the potential to deliver on such Silicon hyperbole.


Cover photo: SCiO