This ‘Star Trek'-style molecular sensor fits in your hand, reads your food

The new pocket scanner allows people to see how much alcohol, sugar, or calories are in their food before they consume it.

This ‘Star Trek'-style molecular sensor fits in your hand, reads your food

Story Highlights

A new device lets users check the nutritional content of food

SCiO was funded by Kickstarter and can detect whether a drink is spiked

You can also use it to check the contents of medicines or the health status of house plants

In the next two to three years, people will be able analyze food contents via their smartphones


Knowing exactly what you eat is important for anyone who has ever been tricked by a sugary punchbowl or a cake that will ruin your diet. This new pocket scanner will give you the power to know exactly what you are eating by providing an instant breakdown on alcohol, sugar or calories.

The USB-shaped "SCiO" device was launched via a Kickstarter campaign in the first week of this month. It reached its goal within 24 hours. Devices are available as low as $149.

It is the product of Israeli startup Consumer Physics. It uses spectrometry, which reads the'molecular signature' of an item by shining Infra Red light near it, which stimulates molecules, and then records their reaction.

The app displays the nutritional values of the food on the smart phone. It measures the fat, carbohydrate, and protein levels down to the milligram.

The technology behind this has been used for years to ensure the quality of chemicals, oil or sewage. SCiO, however, is the first portable consumer spectrometer and has a much wider range of applications. The product was developed by engineers at leading institutions like MIT and Harvard. It has been tested live with high accuracy. The final product is expected to be delivered to backers in this year.

Dror Sharon told CNN that the first application would be for consumers who want to know what their food is nutritionally. I often encounter people who are unsure of the nutritional value of cheese, fruits and vegetables.

I think it can empower people who want to change their diet, for medical or training reasons, and be an educational tool in helping us make better nutrition choices.

Apps are not just for food. Apps can be used to test the effectiveness of medicine or houseplants. SCiO can be used by clubbers to determine if their drinks have been spiked or by patients to verify that their pills are what they claim to be.

The device can be used to scan the environment and consumed objects. For example, an athlete may want to scan their field or track to maximize its playability.

Sharon admits that the device is limited, stating it can only identify elements between "0.1% and 1%" of the chemical makeup. She also states it needs to be more robust in order to be a useful guide for allergy sufferers. The sensor is also susceptible to interference, such as packaging.

Hand held spectrometry is still a much-desired breakthrough in the industry. The challenge was always to calibrate for different materials, according to Dr Brian Curtiss of ASDI, a spectrometry company.

The lab software and system have been centralized.

Maarten van Braaben, Quantified Self's technologist, says that the success of Kickstarter indicates a large market and addresses a real need: "This is an answer to a question, as food checks have never been well automated, and this process offers a more tedious one."

SCiO's competitors will be in this new market. TellSpec, a Canadian company, will launch its own handheld spectrometer focused on food this year. Meanwhile, calorie-sensing wristbands like the HealBeGoBe, are close to being released.

Van Brabben sees more innovation in the future. If you could do the same spectrometry through your camera phone, that would be an interesting concept. I believe it is not too far away, maybe two or three more years.