TrueFood: Everything You Need to Know About the World’s Food & Drink in the Palm of Your Hand

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  • How much do you really know about the products you consume? With growing awareness and interest in both health and sustainability, people want to know more about their food and drink. Add to this the ever-reducing size and cost of sensors and data, and we could be entering a time when anyone can scan food and drinks products from their mobiles and find out everything they need to know about them. A new product from Belfast, TrueFood, is building the online backbone to this next generation of savvy consumers.

    TrueFood is building a cloud-based catalogue of all the world’s food and drink types based on their specific molecular signatures. This will offer rich insights into the true nature of the products we consume, and how they compare with each other.  Going beyond the information on the label, we should be able to discover many factors about the product in our hand, such as its nutritional value, any allergenic or toxic substances, even its geographical origin. All that information can be unlocked by analysing the unique molecular “fingerprint” of every food and drink product. This analysis is a specialism of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, from which TrueFood has emerged.

    The team has been using a range of spectrometers that shine a laser through the sample substance and provide the molecular signature. Such equipment had historically been restricted to large, expensive, lab-based instruments but in recent years they have followed the ubiquitous technology trend of shrinking in both size and cost. Some spectrometers recently went mobile, with a range of handheld devices. These devices have some issues such as data quality, poor applications and short battery life but they’re improving. The TrueFood team foresees an inflexion point within the next five years, when spectral analysis of foods can be conducted from a sensor built into an ordinary consumer mobile. Then the game could really change.

    Imagine browsing the supermarket for your weekly groceries. You find a new brand of juice and want to compare it with your favourite brand and the supermarket’s own version. A quick scan with your smartphone and details of the brand’s specific molecular make-up are sent to TrueFood’s cloud-based database for analysis. The returning information might tell you information such as the juice’s sweetness, calorific content, allergy risks, and transportation miles. As the world becomes increasingly conscious, and conscientious, of what we consume, we are demanding deeper knowledge of our food and drink’s provenance. It is not just about health and nutrition, but ecology and economics too, with a growing focus over recent years on food security and the energy efficiency of food production and transportation.

    TrueFood is being led by Dr Tassos Koidis, a Food Science & Nutrition lecturer at Queen’s. He explained the team’s plan to have the database ready in the cloud in time for the emergence of consumer-grade spectrometers. For demonstration, TrueFood has already populated the database with the world’s vegetable oils, and applied its proprietary algorithms to provide insights on those products. Oil was a deliberate choice due to the market’s propensity for fraudulent claims of authenticity. It turns out there’s more olive oil sold in the world than is produced. Now, with this demonstration successfully conducted, the team is racing to fill the database with more and more products. The analogy Tassos used for this project is that of the internet back in the nineties. Having listed the world’s web pages, Google referenced them with a clever set of algorithms and structures that gave users instant access to what they were looking for. TrueFood aims to provide a similar service with food and drink, having already developed the analytics needed to draw intelligence from that gigantic database – what Tassos calls the “Biobase” – and open it to consumers and businesses around the globe.

    - See more at: NISP CONNECT

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