Food lab inside your mobile phone

One more step towards a real food scanner

“Food scanner” is becoming a topic of common interest. The European Commission has recognized its relevance and provides funding for the development of the technologies required. As the leading partner for applied research in Europe, the Fraunhofer society is performing research and development in the field of food science. For 10 years, the Fraunhofer alliance Food Chain Management has been active in the field of spectroscopy technologies for food analysis. One of its partners, Fraunhofer IPMS filed a patent for a novel device that enables not only food analysis but as well access to quantity and nutrition facts.

This new idea brings new momentum to food scanning. Here, the mobile phone will not only consider the quality of selected food items but also provide individual advice about nutrition and fitness. Besides the estimation of quality and caloric value a volume estimation using camera based 3D triangulation will provide real nutrition information. This can be correlated to user specific data (build, weight …) as well as activity data. Thereby, nutrition and consumption can be evaluated and a recommendation for the user can be given.

The principal technologies behind the idea were established long ago. Professional systems evaluate the ripeness and the sugar content of fruit, just as one of many examples. Those systems each solve well defined and specific applications. For the use in mobile phones serving flexible application tasks, a food scanner must be a multi-purpose system. New components manufactured by micro system technology will be the vehicle for bringing all functionalities of today’s lab analysis to a user friendly device.

Extended hardware components

Comprehensive information about the composition of food such as statements regarding ripeness of fruit, freshness of vegetables or the real fat and protein concentration of meat can be estimated by spectral analysis in a non-contact and non-destructive way. The key to success is the correct wavelength band. Relevant data can be obtained with in depth information through near infrared (NIR) measurements.  Organic matter provides a variety of NIR bands. Unfortunately, these bands are not accessible to silicon based camera chips, as these devices are limited in spectral range. Instead, appropriate NIR light sources are required in combination with NIR-sensitive spectral analyzers. Here, Fraunhofer IPMS is conducting research and IP generation for future systems.

The lab in everyone´s mobile phone

Ongoing developments aim at the integration of miniaturized spectrum analyzers into the mobile phone. This approach directly benefits from the system components of the mobile phone including power, processor, display, human interface and data access. A particular challenge is posed by the outline of the optical bench because the overall device height is limited to 4.5 mm in order to meet the specifications of mobile phone producers. New fabrication techniques and miniaturized components developed at Fraunhofer IPMS address these requirements.

More than a hardware question

Generating suitable information from a spectral measurement requires precise algorithms for data analysis. Measurements must be performed at the right spot. System parameters need to be considered. Finally, data evaluation requires access to the appropriate reference data. The spectral fingerprint of different products may vary even if they consist of similar components. The bands correlated to fat vary for instance between beef, fish or cheese. Similar considerations apply to protein and carbs. Thus, additional information is important for the correct interpretation of spectral data. The analysis becomes a complex task requiring software based evaluation and reference data from a broad data base. This data base requires continuous updates based on validation techniques. Both tasks are in the scope of Fraunhofer Institute of Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation (IOSB) in Karlsruhe.

Interdisciplinary cooperation

Besides expertise in micro systems technology, appropriate lab analysis for generating highly accurate reference data is a key for accurate data evaluation. No on-site measurement is reliable without precise knowledge of the complex matrix of food compositions. The Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology (IME) in Schmallenberg is providing state of the art food analysis though its expertise in sample extraction, preparation for composition analysis and trace detection by chromatographic methods. This is a unique synergy.

In addition to statements regarding food quality aspects and nutritional facts, also food contamination might be an issue. This can be related to fungi, micro biological degradation products or to chemical substances from the environment, fertilizer or pesticides. The detection limits required here are very tough. Quick testing can only be achieved by applying sophisticated methods like fluorescence analysis or Raman spectroscopy. The Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration (IZM) in Berlin has a long standing experience in this field. Recent developments aim at the miniaturization and integration of such systems to enable a broad use of these technologies in the field.

All of these methods and expertise can be combined in a not too distant future, which makes information directly available. These synergies will make it possible to provide correlated and interlinked information to end consumers – in a quality which nowadays is only available in specialized labs.

Contact: heinrich.grueger(at)