The dings, whirrs, and beeps heard around Las Vegas this week aren’t from slot machines. Each January, the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) takes over Sin City and this year, food is taking over CES.
Entering “food” or “cook” in the CES exhibitor search engine just a few years ago would have yielded zero results. But the record-breaking $1-billion-plus invested in food technology in the past quarter translates to a multitude of developing products, some of which companies showed off at CES.
Unfortunately, for now, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas because most items aren’t available for purchase yet. But companies expect them to hit shelves sometime this year.
This year’s CES introduces TellSpec, the second portable calorie-counting food scanner under development. The first calorie-counting scanner, named SCiO, isn’t on the market yet either, and so we begin the thinner-arms race to the marketplace. Both scanners provide a similar instant reading of a food’s calories, allergens, and nutrients. Simply hold the scanner up to—say—ice cream or cottage cheese, and a smartphone displays the food’s stats: 200 calories, 5 grams fat, etc.
The Penguin, showcased by BioSensor Laboratories Inc., claims the ability to “check for harmful elements” in your food “for a truly organic meal.” The handheld tool, which resembles a penguin, determines the amount of pesticides and antibiotics in your steak or apples. It purports to be “the first biosensor company that commercializes electro-chemistry solutions as smart home devices” (well, sure, when you put it that way…). Like SCiO and TellSpec, the Penguin is portable, to be used at home, in stores, or in restaurants, giving eaters a new autonomy to test food. The Penguin needs only a few drops of a food’s juice on a cartridge to provide levels of pesticides and antibiotics, along with three other diet concerns—salinity, glucose, and acidity.
Considering the world’s increased demand for organics and more (and larger, harder to inspect) players expanding into organics, The Penguin will certainly create a “my $5.99 per pint blueberries aren’t actually organic” uproar. But if TellSpec and The Penguin can actually do what they promise, food technology’s influence will stretch far beyond the world’s elite eaters who attend CES. It’s widely known that fresh food is scarce in many poor neighborhoods. But the fresh produce that is in food insecure areas is often older, of lower quality, and of less nutritional value. If a food activist used a scanner to measure bodega lettuce’s nutrient content against lettuce in the average affluent Whole Foods Market, access to fresh food becomes even more of a class issue. Imagine the uproar if The Penguin allows pesticides—literally poisons—to be measured, too.
For bakers always a teaspoon of sugar short for a full batch of cookies, Drop weighs like any digital kitchen scale but can adjust a recipe based on how much of an ingredient is in the pantry. And it’s one of the few food tech toys that is already on the market. For dieters, the Smart Diet Scale weighs ingredients of a meal on separate sensors and, when the dieter identifies the foods on a smartphone, calculates the caloric and nutritional value of the complete meal. Steak on one sensor, a tablespoon of salad dressing on another, a some salad greens on the third, and a baked potato on the fourth and voila—your total meal’s calories appear on the screen.
Perhaps least life-changing, but highest on the cool factor, is a 3D printer by XYZPrinting for cookies in shapes and designs the company provides, or any pattern or shape you design. As with the ChefJet 3D candy printer (revealed at last year’s CES), the cook can design a desired shape on a computer, hook the computer up to the printer, insert dough, push print, and bake. The similar Foodini 3D printer was introduced more than a year ago and has not hit the market yet. The printers will be able to work with other doughy substances, like pizza dough.
Expect to find even more 3D food printers, including with food cartridges (no cooking—just pop it in and hit print), at future CES shows. And with tech giants and venture capitalists continuing to pour money into food innovation, CES attendees should consider the 2015 show just a whetting of their appetites.