We buy those bags of oranges and cartons of kale with such high hopes and good intentions. Yet some portion of them always seems to wind up fuzzed with mold beneath the bananas or slimey and brown in the back of the fridge. Food waste is a huge problem, not just in our own kitchen, but globally. About a third of all food produced for human consumption gets wasted each year, resulting in some $990 billion in financial loss and an enormous toll on the environment. How do we improve these figures? Perhaps some of these technologies can help.
Set to be released this spring, Ovie Smarterware is a system of "Smart Tags" that you stick on your food containers. You press the button on the tag to connect with the Ovie hub and tell it what kind of food it is; it registers the food and begins a countdown. When half the food's shelf life has passed, the tag changes colors and sends your phone a message so you know it's time to eat. No longer will you stand in front of the fridge, wondering whether that leftover lo mein is worth a possible food poisoning.
An App for Almost-Expired Food
Grocery stores toss tons of expired food every week. The new Flashfood app connects you with cheap deals on food getting close to its best-by date, through partnerships with local supermarkets. It only works with a limited number of stores in Canada and the Midwest right now, but plans to expand.
Catch that Ethylene
Ethylene gas is produced by some fruits, including apples and bananas, when they start to ripen; too much ethylene can cause produce to rot prematurely. The food industry has long used ethylene absorbers, often in the form of sachets, filters or films, to prevent early ripening and rot during shipment. But in recent years such products have been targeted directly at consumers. Bluapple, which looks like, well, a blue plastic apple, can be tucked into your produce drawer to suck up excess ethylene by oxidizing it with sodium permanganate. Other commercial products, such as Keep Fresh, promise similar results—fruits and veggies that last as much as three times longer.
Giving Fruit a Second Skin
Apeel Sciences, a California company dedicated to fighting food waste, has created a "second skin" for fruits and veggies called Edipeel. Edipeel is a film based on a plant's own cutin—the waxy substance that protects fruits and veggies from the elements by keeping water inside and oxygen out—that can increase shelf life up to three times. It's applied after harvesting and helps keep produce fresh until it makes it to your salad bowl.
See Rot the Eye Cannot
Hyperspectral imaging—a technology that chops the electromagnetic spectrum into hundreds of bands to look for data the eye can't see—has been a hot topic in food technology circles in recent years. Hyperspectral cameras can see when produce is becoming ripe—the riper the fruit, the darker the image. This has made it useful in food inspection. More recently, researchers have been trying to bring the technology directly to consumers, with cost-efficient devices that could potentially be incorporated into smartphone cameras. So soon you may be able to snap a quick iPhone pic to know exactly when to eat that avocado.
Will Nano-Labels Replace Best-By Dates?
Rice University researchers have developed a way of etching graphene patterns on food, literally turning a thin layer of the food itself into graphene. This process can be used to create edible radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, which could be embedded with all sorts of information—where the food came from, how old it is, who produced it—and even warn of contamination.
Dynamic Pricing at Closing Time
You can often get cheap hotel deals by booking at the very last minute, since hotels have realized by then that no one else wants that room. The app Gebni is trying to bring something similar to the restaurant industry by offering lower "smart prices" for dishes that aren't moving quickly, especially near closing time. So if nobody else is feeling like a kale caesar today, you're in luck—you get a good deal and the restaurant doesn't waste food. It's currently only available in New York. An Israeli startup called Wasteless is getting in on the dynamic food pricing game with an algorithm for making food cheaper as it nears its sell-by date. It's a high-tech version of those yellow stickers supermarket employees slap on aging milk cartons and steaks.