Mobile analysis to monitor food quality and freshness

Wednesday, 15 June, 2022

Mobile analysis to monitor food quality and freshness

In food manufacturing, it is crucial to correctly identify visually similar substances, such as sugar and salt. Complex compositional analyses can also provide information about the quality, ripeness or freshness of products. Fraunhofer IPMS is currently researching and developing small energy-efficient scanner systems, which enable non-contact and mobile freshness testing onsite using near-infrared spectral analysis.

Near infrared (NIR) spectral analysis has been used in the laboratory to determine the food’s freshness. Highly accurate instruments are able to provide precise information about the condition of the product at the time of measurement. However, it becomes problematic when the sample changes in the period between sampling and measurement in the laboratory, or when results are needed quickly. Many new applications could benefit from NIR spectral analysis if the systems can be miniaturised sufficiently for mobile use and made available at low cost.

For this reason, the Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems IPMS is developing small analysis devices that can be integrated into handheld devices such as tablets or smartphones.

The use of micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) enables compact systems that can be manufactured cost-effectively in large quantities. The quality of the measurements is suitable for many applications despite the small size and the data can be chemometrically analysed onsite or online. This makes it possible, for example, to make direct statements about the ripeness and freshness of food. Other applications include checking correct mixing ratios in food processing or making selection of food for recycling or re-use processes.

Current research at Fraunhofer IPMS combines a simple technology for the MEMS component with a large addressable spectral range of the system and a high degree of modularity. The core of the system is a MEMS scanning mirror, which deflects the incident collimated light beams onto a grating mounted in the system. A selection of different spectral diffraction gratings is possible, which can be optimised and used for specific applications.

Example of the miniaturised MEMS scanning mirror. © Fraunhofer IPMS

The current demonstration system, which can also be seen at the Fraunhofer IPMS booth at the Analytica trade fair in Munich from 21–24 June, addresses the proven spectral range from 950 to 1900 nm with a spectral resolution of 10 nm. Currently, the system achieves a build volume of about 2 cm³. However, further miniaturisation is possible.

The measurements are performed in typical arrangements depending on the sample properties, for example in transmission for liquid media or sufficiently transparent solids or in diffuse reflection for less transparent samples with sufficient scattering in cross-section. The optical coupling of the spectrometer is possible as free-beam optics or via coupled fibres. In the demonstration system, the detection of white powders is shown. This could be salt, sugar, starch or flour, but numerous substances that appear visually similar can be detected and assigned.

“In the context of evaluating food quality parameters, it has been shown that pressure and damaged spots can be detected very early on, using apples as an example, so that suitable selection allows recovery with the highest possible added value and minimises avoidable destruction,” said Dr Heinrich Grüger, scientist at Fraunhofer IPMS. Quantitative analyses are also possible using appropriate mathematical models and compositional analysis has been implemented to evaluate the quality of olive oil.

Example of a mobile onsite food analysis using avocados. © Fraunhofer IPMS

Applications in the agricultural context range from soil evaluation to monitoring growth to maturity evaluation for harvesting, then in the supply chain context, in storage, logistics and distribution. At the ‘point of sale’, an important application is for the selection of goods to be sold at a reduced price for immediate consumption just before they lose freshness, instead of disposing of them the following day. On the other hand, simpler systems can be developed for the private user at home.

Top image caption: Demonstration system for the identification of white powders. © Fraunhofer IPMS

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