Why read the packet when your oven can do it for you?

June 02, 1999

An intelligent microwave oven that knows how to cook convenience foods could also warn people with allergies that their dinner may contain potentially dangerous ingredients such as peanuts.

Many microwave ovens are hard to operate, as their front panels often contain confusing arrays of badly labelled buttons. With trials due to start in six months, the Intelligent Microwave Oven aims to end that problem-at least for convenience foods. You should be able to cook your ready meal by simply swiping the packaging over a bar-code scanner on the oven's front panel.

The bar code will contain information telling the oven how to cook the food, explains Kit Yam, who developed the system at the Department of Food Science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The work is funded by Samsung, the Korean consumer electronics company. Yam says the microwave ensures that the food is cooked as the maker intended, at the right temperature for the right amount of time-crucial for killing dangerous bacteria in cook-chill meals.

In the kitchen, says Yam, you can customise the microwave to suit your tastes. If you are a vegan and find it a pain to check each label for gelatin-containing products, or if you are allergic to nuts or gluten, the microwave can be programmed to warn you. With the cooperation of the food industry, says Yam, it may even be able to tell you if your food contains genetically modified ingredients.

William Cookson, an allergy specialist at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, says that most people with life-threatening food allergies train themselves to scrutinise labels. "There are things in food that people would need to know about and for that reason this might be helpful," he says. The trick has been putting together proven technologies and getting the food industry to make the bar codes more detailed. "What's new here is the information put into the bar code," says Yam. "The key is the partnership with the food industry because the microwave oven companies can not do it by themselves."
Author: Duncan Graham-Rowe
New Scientist issue 5 June 1999


New Scientist

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