The future of food shopping is scanners

By TARA ABRISHAMI | March 31, 2016

You probably do know the answer to that one: Most organic foods have a label. Are the crackers made with genetically modified wheat?

How far away were the tomatoes grown? How long have they been sitting on the shelf? How environmentally friendly is the tomato farm or the cracker producer? In all likelihood those questions never even crossed your mind.

There are loads of questions we should be asking about our food and as consumers we have the right to the answers. For example:

Genetically modified (GMO) foods should be labeled regardless of whether they are healthy, safe or distinguishable from their non-GMO counterparts. Many who oppose labeling genetically modified products don’t want to scare people who might have undue fears of GMO food away. However more information is always better than less. Instead of keeping consumers in the dark, companies producing genetically modified products should focus on educating the public about genetically modified products, how they have been tested and why they are safe for consumption. Consumers have the right to choose what they buy. When it comes to food, that right is especially precious because this food goes into our bodies, affects our health and our well-being.

Though no state has yet to pass a law requiring the labeling of GMO foods, the consumer’s right to choose is being promoted by members of the industry: Whole Foods Market has pledged to carry only labeled food products in their stores by 2018. This is a step in the right direction: We need more information about our food, far more information.

I came across an article describing a new scanning technology to analyze food. Apparently when such a scanner is complete, it will have the ability to return not only a nutritional breakdown of a product but also information like how long the product has been in storage, whether or not there are pesticide residues on the product or even the presence of allergens like gluten and dairy in the product. The scanner will have the ability to scan through plastic wrap and other packing materials, which makes it usable on both produce and packaged foods.

Though retailers like Target hope to use the scanners to provide higher-quality food and thus gain a competitive advantage, the scanners could also be developed for consumers as a tool to aid shopping.

With access to a wealth of such information, shopping can become less about what you eat and more about how you eat. Maybe your smartphone tells you that your crackers contain almost no nutritional content but were instead manufactured two years ago and stuffed with processed grains and artificial flavors. Then you might feel more inclined to go with locally grown baby carrots picked two days ago or hummus made from garbanzo beans, lemon juice from actual fresh lemons, tahini and garlic.

Maybe once scanning technologies are developed they can also be used to scan for other kinds of information from a barcode on the products: Does the farm practice sustainable agriculture? Is your meat from a certified humane source? What was the livestock fed ­­­­­— genetically modified grains, scraps of old meat (even meat of their own type) or were they grass-fed — the healthier option for them and for us?

Scanning technology that increases consumer knowledge about food is something to get excited about. In the future our smartphones will deliver a neat little report detailing the specifics of a food product we might be considering. For now we still have to do the research the old-fashioned way, though perhaps not for long.

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