“Nose on a chip” handheld device claims to be able to monitor your food

Big promises with regards to identifying pesticides, allergens and nutrients in food. Is this real or fantasy? Time to be skeptical…

Handheld Device TellSpec Can Detect Allergens, Chemicals, and Nutrients In Food | Singularity Hub.

For this particular ill of the post-War era, there’s now a 21st-century workaround: a hand-held spectrometer that can determine exactly what is in the user’s food and display it on his or her smartphone.

A Toronto company called TellSpec has developed a spectroscopy data-crunching algorithm that runs in the cloud and delivers nuggets of useful information to the user through a smartphone app. The idea for the device came from co-founder Isabel Hoffman’s daughter, who suffers from gluten intolerance and other food allergies.

“Until recently, spectrometers were large and expensive, but now they are available as tiny affordable chips,” explained Hoffman.

So, on the surface, this sounds like an excellent ideas. Raman spectroscopy is a real thing but, as noted, the current technology is pricey. But it does work. Is this a case of the tech getting better and smaller?

Smaller Than Your Phone, This Device Could Keep You Healthy.

Or is this a hyped device you will see on infomercials as a miracle product but is less than accurate or reliable? Hmm. There are some red flags here.

  • The team does not include actually tech people but lots of marketers. Some have very questionable backgrounds.
  • There is much vague but sciencey language in the pitches.
  • They raised money via Indie GoGo instead of investors.
  • Raman spectroscopy does not work well in a lit room so this idea of waving some “magic wand” over your food is overly simplistic.
  • This is a LASER. They don’t sell powerful lasers to people to put in their purses, there are restrictions. If the laser is strong enough to do this work, it is strong enough to be dangerous.
  • People who use this type of equipment are saying it’s impossible as described.

The Tender Foodie pulled their article on the device after noting critical comments on the JREF forum.

Dr. Stephen Watson chimed in on the JREF forum.

TellSpec uses several techniques to get information on allergens, and these use historical scans and database information. Of course, the scanner can only directly detect an allergen in the regions of the food being scanned. If a small bit of allergen is present in an unfamiliar food, and the laser does not scan that bit, then that bit of allergen will not be detected. TellSpec is NOT planned to be a medical device. Someone with a severe allergy should NOT rely on TellSpec, although they may still find it a helpful supplement to their current precautions.

Then he didn’t return to answer the followup questions.

So the demonstrations and the promises are all speculation at this point. The promises seem too large for what can reasonably be accomplished.

They far exceeded their IndieGoGo goal. I suspect MANY people would buy this product thinking it would do great things. But it has a very long way to go before anyone should believe it.

Tellspec prototype. (It's chocolate, probably has nuts, lots of sugar and fat, BEWARE.)

Tellspec prototype. (It’s chocolate, probably has nuts, lots of sugar and fat, BEWARE.)

Tip: David Wood

  6 comments for ““Nose on a chip” handheld device claims to be able to monitor your food

  1. Chris Howard
    December 16, 2013 at 11:35 AM

    Pardon the ignorance, but don’t you have to burn stuff up to do accurate chemical analasys?

    More to the point, don’t you have to have some schooling to understand the test results?

    • December 16, 2013 at 5:21 PM

      Some analyses do involve destructive sampling methods, but many non-destructive approaches (including various forms of spectroscopy) exist.

      The “electronic noses” I’m familiar with have been powered by A/C impedence spectroscopy. In my experience, they are unwieldy compared with the image shown in the “Tellspec prototype” above. They also tend to be very, very specialized in the “This is my electronic H2 detector, guess how many jobs it has?” kind of way.

      • Chris Howard
        December 16, 2013 at 10:41 PM

        Thank you for the explination. :-)

  2. ZombyWoof
    December 16, 2013 at 1:51 PM

    The laser can always be used as a pointer.

  3. Lagaya1
    December 16, 2013 at 2:41 PM

    Is this where Raman spectroscopy meets ramen spectroscopy?

    • Andrew
      December 16, 2013 at 4:43 PM

      Yeah. You will have to use your noodle… and don’t buy it.
      :D

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