Food scanner from fraunhofer recognizes shelf life

Food scanner from fraunhofer recognizes shelf life

Millions of tons of actually good food end up in the garbage in Germany alone. A handy and affordable food scanner from the Fraunhofer Institute will soon change that.

Many foods end up in waste, even though they are still edible. With a mobile food scanner, consumers and also retailers or supermarket operators should be able to check in future whether food can still be placed on the market safely – and thus reduce food waste.

The pocket-sized device uses infrared measurement to determine the degree of ripeness and shelf life of vegetables, fruit and the like, and displays the result using an app.

Pocket "tricorder" scans food

Is the shriveled cucumber still good? Is this yogurt already "over it"? When it comes to such questions, many consumers make a clear choice for safety: put it away – rather buy something fresh.

Therefore, many products in Germany are only thrown away because they no longer look appetizing, have minor blemishes or the best-before date has expired. This applies both to private consumers at home and to supermarkets that lure customers with fresh-looking goods – and who know from experience that shriveled vegetables are often left behind.

Because in Bavaria alone 1.3 million tons of food are unnecessarily thrown away every year, the alliance »We save food« wants to counteract waste with a total of 17 measures. One of the projects: the food scanner, which can determine the actual freshness of food – for both packaged and unpacked goods.

Can a food scanner help against food waste? (Photo: "Fresh food in garbage" from USDA under CC-BY-SA)

Fraunhofer researchers developed the demo system together with partners on behalf of the Bavarian State Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Forests. "Infrared light is sent precisely to the product to be examined, then the spectrum of the reflected light is measured," explains Dr. Robin Gruna, project manager and scientist at Fraunhofer. "The absorbed wavelengths allow conclusions to be drawn about the chemical composition of the goods."

This is actually high-tech, but recently it can be done for little money. Thanks to low-cost sensors, suitable devices for private users could soon also detect counterfeit products such as adulterated olive oil.

Food scanner against food waste – do we need that at all??

The food scanner is not yet perfect and only evaluates the product quality of homogeneous foods. Heterogeneous products with different ingredients such as pizza are currently difficult to test – but research is already being done on them.

Utopia thinks: Such a device would certainly make sense for retailers and shows what is technically possible. However, one also has to ask: Do we really need a food scanner – or is it not a retrospective, purely technical solution to a problem that should be tackled more effectively at the root, for example with very clever ideas such as the expiration date?

Will the ecological impact of possibly millions of such devices not be much greater than the benefits – especially if consumers still decide that the three-week-old egg simply cannot be good? (Also read: Egg test: is this egg still good?)

Even worse: The dreaded rebound effect could also occur here, for example if consumers make it a sport, use the food scanner to find the freshest items guaranteed in the supermarket – and then in the end even more goods are left unsaleable and are thrown away.

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