Nowadays, if you want to make sure your food hasn’t spoiled, you are limited to some very unscientific options. You can check the date, look at it, and/or smell it. None of these methods are completely reliable, leaving it possible for you to become sick from eating bad food. Cosmetics have an expiration date, too, and using them after they have “gone off” can cause skin irritation and eye infections. Or they could make you susceptible to skin cancer or sunburn if they contain a sunscreen on which you’re relying for sun protection.
The days of not knowing whether food or cosmetics have become spoiled may soon be over. Researchers at Clarkson University of New York have invented an inexpensive, portable, paper sensor that can detect contamination and spoilage in both food and cosmetic products. The easy-to-use sensor can also identify new medicinal plants and tell you whether or not the wine or tea you’re drinking is authentic.
The paper changes color when it comes into contact with spoiled food or cosmetics. The more the color changes, the more severe the level of spoilage or contamination. The process works by reacting to certain specific bacteria. For example, one of the contaminants it currently reacts with is ochratoxin A, which is a fungal toxin found in products like cereal and coffee. Scientists hope its use could be expanded even further and that the sensors will be able to identify salmonella and E. coli in the future. These two contaminants are responsible for thousands of severe cases of food poisoning every year.
Not only can these sensors tell you when food has gone bad, they also, by default, let you know when food is still okay to eat. Thousands of pounds of food are thrown away each year because people rely heavily on expiration dates to tell them when food is no longer safe to eat. Often, food that is past its printed date is still perfectly safe to eat if it has been stored correctly. This is because those labels are more reliable for telling consumers when food might not taste as good. They are meant to be used as “best by” dates rather than “must use by” dates.
These sensors are currently still in the testing stages, but their developers hope to have them in the hands of consumers as soon as possible.