Smart Labels Could Tell You When to Throw Out Food

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Knowing when exactly your food or makeup is no longer healthy to consume or use is closer to being a reality. Scientists at Clarkson University in New York have created a smart label that detects whether a product is no longer viable for consumers.

Testing various food products, from salmon to cheese. Credit: American Chemical Society/YouTube

The smart label comes in the simple form of a small piece of paper that could have the ability not only to detect when products go bad, but also even identify new plants. Silvana Andreescu, professor and chemistry department chair at Clarkson and the study’s lead author, said the label ties in with her interest to bring new technologies to both industry leaders as well as to consumers themselves.

“I’ve always been interested in developing technologies that are accessible to both industry and the general population,” Andreescu said in a press release. “My lab has built a versatile sensing platform that incorporates all the needed reagents for detection in a piece of paper. At the same time, it is adaptable to different targets, including food contaminants, antioxidants and free radicals that indicate spoilage.”

Andreescu and her team presented the sensor at the 245th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society this past week. She said the sensor is different in that its nanostructures attach to specific compounds.

“Most people working on similar sensors use solutions that migrate on channels,” she said. “We use stable, inorganic particles that are redox active. When they interact with the substances we want to detect, they change color, and the intensity of the change tells us how concentrated the analyte is.”

Testing the smart labels with salmon. Credit: American Chemical Society/YouTube

Since everything needed to detect the target substances is embedded in the paper itself, it can be applied to a sample for immediate results. The researchers have used the sensor to identify antioxidants in tea and wine, and found that each has a special makeup that could help authenticate the beverages.

Andreescu said the sensors could go as far to help scientists searching remote forestry, like the Amazon rainforest, for sources of antioxidants found in nature. The sensor has also been used to find ochratoxin A, a fungal toxin that is often found in everyday foods like cereal.

The team is currently working to develop sensors that change color when in contact with spoiled foods or cosmetics. Andreescu said the sensors could eventually help consumers determine when to throw a product out for health and safety concerns.

Related: Do Healthy Labels Actually Discourage Healthy Food Purchases?

Tori Linville
Tori Linville is a freelance writer and editor from Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s faithfully watching her alma mater, the University of Alabama, dominate the football field.