What Really IS Inside That Taco?

Dr. McCoy from Star Trek

Image courtesy of Paramount Television

What Really IS Inside That Taco?
| Published May 2, 2014 |

By Thursday Review staff

What’s your favorite gadget on Star Trek? Phasers? Those could do some damage, and they’d still be useful in making household garbage disappear. Transporter. Yes, that would save on your transportation costs—especially for you Thursday Review readers who live in Manhattan and the District of Columbia. Handheld communicators? Well, never mind. We already did that.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many folks’ favorite Federation gadget was the tricorder. What a way to tell if something was exactly as advertised, and what a tool for instantly verifying the components of something, anything. It was like having a scanning electron microscope, but without spending the $2.5 million to get it. What was in that smothered meat-like substance they used to serve in the school cafeteria? (You may recall it by the name of Beige Gravy Surprise.) Those fried burgers from White Castle, Milligan’s and Krystal? Here comes the disgusting truth. And we could at last learn whether the five-second rule applied to things like bologna sandwiches and Hostess Twinkies.

If we’d only had one of those tricorders.

Now, a small tech company in Toronto has taken us to that next phase. TellSpec has developed and tested a small device which—when properly used—can detect the contents and compounds of foods or biological items. The computer mouse-sized tool works by scanning the food substance up close and personal (a few inches away, at most), reading and analyzing reflected light. The device is basically a portable spectrometer, verifying the contents of food products by identifying their wavelength on the spectrum.

Its designers envisioned it for use for people who suffer from extreme allergies, or for people with conditions like diabetes—a simple to operate device that would take the guesswork and risk out of shopping in the grocery store, buying a burrito from a street vendor, or purchasing a corn dog at the carnival. The scanner can easily and accurately read levels of sugar, gluten, carbs, sulfites, tannins and more, and the data can be transferred within seconds to an app on a smartphone.

The food scanner is pricey for now—about $500 per unit. But TellSpec says that soon the price of the small unit will come down to such a degree that anyone can own one, and they envision a day when health-conscious folks can verify for themselves the MSG content of what they order in a restaurant, or the exact quantity of a life-threatening allergen like peanut oil, wheat or pine nuts.

TellSpec plans to beta test the device with a few hundred customers as early as June. If the testing goes well, they can begin marketing it to retailers, food companies and health stores soon after that.