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Please Don't Squeeze the Peaches

BioPhotonics
Jun 2016
JAMES SCHLETT, EDITOR, james.schlett@photonics.com

Despite all of mankind’s technological advances, consumer methods for testing fruit ripeness — visually scanning, squeezing and smelling — remain fairly primitive. In many ways, the difference between how our hunter-gatherer ancestors identified ripe fruit in the forest or on the savannah and how we do it in the grocery story is probably more a matter of art than technique.

Now, however, a high-tech yet practical alternative to these primitive tests is emerging at the consumer level — and it is based on spectroscopy. Last March, Minneapolis-based Target Corp. began using spectrometers to scan produce at its distribution centers in Lake City, Fla., and Cedar Falls, Iowa. Looking to bring a new level of transparency to fresh labeling, the retailer is turning to spectroscopy to develop platforms that can accurately identify single source foods, such as fruits, vegetables, meats and liquids, as well as their nutritional content and ripeness.

Target recently tested a prototype “spectroscale,” which uses spectroscopy to measure produce’s nutrient content, including vitamins, calcium and dietary fiber.
Target recently tested a prototype “spectroscale,” which uses spectroscopy to measure produce’s nutrient content, including vitamins, calcium and dietary fiber. Courtesy of Target Corp.

Target’s venture into spectroscopy began last summer, when it approached the Dunedin, Fla.-based Ocean Optics Inc. for the retailer’s “Food + Future coLab” initiative. This initiative, which also includes the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass., and the global design firm IDEO in Palo Alto, Calif., aims to employ technology to advance, among other things, urban farming and food transparency. While spectrometers are no strangers to food quality control, what is interesting about Target’s initiative is how it promises to bring the technology into direct contact with general consumers.

For five weeks ending around mid-April, Target conducted a half-million spectroscopic scans of various types of produce at the distribution centers. These scans were conducted to show the spectral variability among different types of produce. By combining the spectral data from the distribution centers with lab results, which found the optimal levels of sugars, moisture, acids and other qualities, Target will develop chemometric algorithms. These algorithms will allow Target “to see and predict the correlation between spectra and what is inside the produce,” said Greg Shewmaker, the company’s entrepreneur-in-residence.


Watch Photonics Media's slideshow - an online special feature - on Target Corp. and Ocean Optics Inc.'s project to use spectroscopy to help consumers pick the ripest and most nutritious fruit.

Target, however, is not alone in wanting to empower produce shoppers with spectroscopy. For example, the Israeli startup Consumer Physics Inc. in June 2015 shipped its first SCiO handheld near-infrared spectrometers, which, when paired with a smartphone application with access to a cloud-based database, can assess the nutrient values and quality of fruit. Shewmaker emphasized that Target’s goal “is to obtain a high-fidelity view of spectral data in the visible and NIR range.” This high-fidelity spectroscopic view would enable Target to not only use spectrometers to differentiate between different types of fruit, but between cultivars as well.

“We also think spectroscopy will eventually be a tool that consumers will have to have more transparency into their food. Part of our work now is continuing to develop additional applications for the technology and we think we’re only scratching the surface,” Shewmaker said.

To deliver that additional level of transparency, Target also tested at one of its stores near Fenway Park in Boston a prototype “spectroscale,” which resembles a tabletop weight scale with a digital display. In addition to measuring the weight of produce, the spectroscale uses spectroscopy to measure its nutrient content, such as vitamins, calcium and dietary fiber. Shewmaker said Target is also “testing a concept where we could price produce based on the nutritional weight of the item and offer a discount for produce with lower nutritional value.” After taking into account feedback from customers at the Boston store, Target will introduce spectroscales to other stores this spring.

While the introduction of spectroscopy into grocery store produce departments certainly holds much promise, retailers no doubt face a difficult task of convincing people to trust a spectrometer rather than our millennia-old instincts to visually scan, sniff and squeeze the produce.


GLOSSARY
target
1. The anode or anticathode of an x-ray tube that emits x-rays when bombarded by electrons. 2. The screen in a television imaging tube that is scanned by an electron beam to determine the charge-density stored on it.
spectrometer
A kind of spectrograph in which some form of detector, other than a photographic film, is used to measure the distribution of radiation in a particular wavelength region.  
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