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Nutritional Content of Food with RamanPi

Hacking Raman Spectroscopy and market forces to grow healthier food.

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Food production has increased dramatically over the last century, however the nutritional value of food may have decreased. Using Raman Spectroscopy, anyone can verify and quantify the nutritional value of their crops. Doing so would allow strong existing market forces to drive further investigation and innovation into the way we feed the world.

Disclaimer: I wasn't originally going to bother posting this idea, but was convinced to by the recent blog post "We Have a Problem: Food Production". I'm not sure there is enough original innovation in this to warrant a prize, however I wanted to get the idea out there in case it inspires someone else with an even better idea. All I'm doing here is aggregating and leveraging other's innovations.


Background:

There are two related trends I have observed that I think warrant investigation.

1. As the recent blog post noted, the last century saw massive improvements in food production capacity thanks to technological innovation, saving billions of lives in the developing world. An emerging criticism of this Green Revolution is reports of decreased nutritional value in high yield crops. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Revolution :Criticism / Quality of Diet

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/soil-depletion-and-nutrition-loss/

2. Somewhat more recently, market forces have shifted to make "organic" food wildly popular. This can be seen in the rise of local farmer's markets nationwide. For more purely anecdotal evidence, look at the stock price of "Whole Foods Markets" compared to the Dow since 1992.

An interesting twist to this is confusion over the term "organic", and a general (though unproven) perception of increased nutritional value. "A recent study examined the past 50 years' worth of scientific articles about the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. The researchers concluded that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are not significantly different in their nutrient content."

http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/organic-food/art-20043880

The Problem:

Significant market forces and scientific research have indicated a profound need for more nutritious crops. The relatively bland labels of "organic" and the even more dubious "natural" have been insufficient at driving innovation towards this end. Further, it seems that while increasing in popularity, the benefits of buying "organic" seem to be largely subjective for the average shopper. Either they are philosophically pre-disposed to buying organic and are thus willing to pay the higher price, or they aren't.

A Partial Solution:

Two years ago, I had an idea for a solution. In a free market economy it is generally true that the cheapest product will win out. Where more expensive products can compete of course is in quality. A product will survive or thrive if it can offer a benefit in quality that outweighs its added cost. While this added benefit can of course be subjective, the effect is more pronounced if it can be easily measured and quantified for the customers. Most of you I'm sure remember the "Megahertz War" of the 1990s, and later the "Megapixels War" in digital cameras. From these two prominent examples, I realized that massive market forces can be captured if a particular aspect of quality can be quantified and compared to competitors.

My solution then is to provide a method of measuring and quantifying the nutritional content of crops. The success of Whole Foods and farmers markets proves that people are willing to pay more for food that is merely 'perceived' to be healthier. How much more will they pay for food that is proven to be healthier? A local farmer who can grow apples twice as nutrient rich as the supermarket's apples, and who can prove it to his customers in an easily quantifiable way, would have a huge competitive advantage.

Currently, crops compete largely on cost and aesthetic appeal. Thus markets have driven the cultivation of cheap, large, shiny, bright red apples because they "look" better on a store shelf. This has apparently resulted in a massive decline in the true nutritional content of food crops. If however crops competed based on nutritional content, market forces would drive innovation to instead focus on the cultivation of nutrient dense foods.

In summary: I do not know...

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  • Project ended, for now.

    Keegan Reilly10/23/2015 at 14:50 0 comments

    It's been a long time since I wrote anything on this. For some family medical reasons I've been unable to actually pursue this project at all over the summer, and don't foresee that changing anytime soon, but wanted to write a quick note for posterity and anyone else who happens across this topic and is interested.

    It turns out, I'm not the only person to have this idea, there were not one but TWO "failed" crowdfunding campaigns for similar devices in the last two years, one on Indigogo and the other on Kickstarter.

    TellSpec: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/tellspec-what-s-in-your-food

    SciO: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/903107259/scio-your-sixth-sense-a-pocket-molecular-sensor-fo

    I should mention that neither project has materialized into real thing, and present most people seem to consider both of them to be failed products at best, or scams at worst.

    Where does this leave my project? I still do not know for sure whether this is technically feasible. Products can fail for a myriad of reasons unrelated to technical feasibility (supply chain issues, mismanagement of funds or time, cost overruns, marketing failure, etc.). I do know now that my "idea" is NOT new, thus if it was an easy problem it most likely should have been solved by now.

    A second thought has occurred to me. For this to catch on and have the far reaching effect I had envisioned, the barriers to entry need to be vastly lower. As amazing as the RamanPi project is, it really is made to be a tool for hackers and technical enthusiasts like us, not foody consumers. Raman spectroscopy is, frankly, really hard, and there are other easier forms of spectroscopy that could yield equally useful information. Technically, complementary nutritional and chemical information can be gleaned from Infrared spectroscopy, which is MUCH easier to accomplish.

    Ultra-cheap visible and infrared spectrometers based on smartphones already exist thanks to the work of PublicLab: http://store.publiclab.org/collections/spectrometry

    Thus I think an ultimately more fruitful effort would be to explore this pre-existing hardware and ascertain whether it would be "good enough" for scanning food, perhaps through the advantages afforded through the use of "big data". If anyone one reads this and has better ideas you would like to share I'm all ears! Cheers


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Neo wrote 04/09/2015 at 05:14 point

Hi Keegan Reilly,

1. i am i am happy that you are aggreagting together the ideas, needs, projects that can fight the present day problems associated with food.... As you know already fl@C@ has put a good effort and realized a practical raman spectrometer. I love such projects that can bring the balance.

i am from india, and i have suffered from Green Revolution. We suffer here with malnutrition. Traditional foods had great deal of nutritional value, which was replaced with food that has more carbohydrates and fat and few less nutrition.

I think that spectrophotometer projects like spectruino, publiclabs - open spectrophotometer, & Raman pi, Ocean optics STS development kit, hamammatsu's microspectrometer, texas instruments dlp based spectrometer and fraunhofers' moems based spectrometer can equip everybody with a personal health and nutrition inspection system.

My work is also associated with spectrophotometer, and have created a spectrometer from scratch, but which is bulky, and with heavy heavy cost burden. That's when i found all these above projects and following all of them till date.

Apart from that beware about sham companies like tellspec which kind of cheats and changes and never finished what they promised. My posts over there are even deleted for criticizing their datas.... !


2. Spectrometers are one wide range of instrument right from space exploration right under chemical analysis in  our food. I am in an effort to catalogue nutritional chart for traditional food, and it would be good if every body does that. I have also catalogued factory food based on E number and correlating them with spectral data.

3. here almost permaculture, biodynamic, and organic farming is taking back in practice now. we also could spectrometers, for soil, water and environmental assessment in a distributed way without the need for government or private testing laboratories (with free(dom) and cost effective devices like the above).

your knowledge about market economy are true and good. you know you are one of few groups of people thinking about symbiosis and ecology with economy with engineering knowledge. Great.


However my wishes for your effort. Go on.

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