How can my spoon taste my food for me?

Let an intelligent spoon handle the food tasting. See more gadget pictures.
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It's been another long day at work, and the last thing you want to do is go home and cook for your family. No matter how hard you try, the peanut gallery will find some reason to complain. "The soup is too salty," says one child. Another child complains that his casserole is too runny. "This pie crust could really use some citrus," reports your spouse, who apparently moonlights as a food critic for the local newspaper.

What you need is an intelligent spoon, a mixing spoon that uses sensors to measure different food qualities, like acidity, during the cooking process. This automated kitchen utensil was developed by two students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2005. The students were working in MIT's Counter Intelligence Lab, which tries to create smart technology products that make our time in the kitchen easier. Smart technology automates appliances and devices with computers so that most of the work and the required thought are eliminated from everyday tasks.

­Some of the Counter Intelligence Lab's other cool innovations for kitchens of the future include the "Talking Trivet," which will let you know if something needs to be rewarmed, if it's too hot to touch or if it's ready to eat. Faucets will let you know both the temperature of the water and also if you're using too much of it. In the future, you could project recipes directly onto a countertop so the cookbook doesn't get dirty, and you could save electricity by never having to open your fridge just to know what's inside. Instead, a small camera and projection screen could let you know your fridge's contents when you're thinking about what's for dinner. But what about those intelligent spoons? How can they help with dinner? How do they use smart technology to taste food? Go on to the next page to find out what these spoons can stir up.

Intelligent Spoon

Prototype of a smart spoon
Prototype of a smart spoon
2008 HowStuffWorks

­Currently, the prototype intelligent spoon is made of clear plastic so that you can see an array of wires running through the inside. The smart spoon contains zinc, aluminum and gold sensors. When the spoon touches food, the sensors measure the concoction's temperature, acidity, salinity and viscosity. When you connect the spoon to a computer with a cord, the computer analyzes the information from the spoon and provides feedback. Although the intelligent spoon is still in development, we guess that it measures these factors and creates suggestions based on a database of recipes stored in the computer.

How might this play out in the kitchen? Say you're making salad dressing from scratch. You find a recipe on the computer and start following it. You accidentally add too much salt, and you're worried the entire dressing is too salty. Rather than tasting the dressing, figuring out how to adjust it and tasting it again, the computer would tell you to add a certain amount of sugar. The computer would tell you how much vinegar or lime juice to add so that you had just the right amount of acidity, as measured by the mix's pH level. Is the dressing not holding together? The viscosity sensor will alert the computer that you need more egg yolk. It would be like having a GPS system for each recipe -- a step-by-step instruction based on what's in the bowl.

Now, if you love to cook, this might seem a bit silly. Some cooks would argue that your intuition and personal preference are better guides for preparing food than any precise recipe. It's the joy of tasting and tinkering that creates magic in the kitchen, and mistakes are part of the process. You just may stumble onto something better than what's in the cookbook. Cooks may even point out that you can't always follow a recipe word for word. For example, baking at higher altitudes is much different than baking at sea level because altitude affects moisture content. It's too early to tell whether the intelligent spoon will provide this level of assistance.

While cooking may become intuitive, the intelligent spoon could really help new cooks or clumsy cooks get on the right foot in the kitchen. They may eventually learn from their intelligent spoon and feel more comfortable cooking on their own. However, the intelligent spoon is not for sale yet, and there are several unknowns, including cost and ease of use. Smart appliances in general are not widely available in the marketplace, in part because they're usually more expensive than traditional appliances and because they can be more complicated to use. Many people may not trust a smart appliance when the regular one works just fine. In the case of the smart spoon, not everyone will want to drag a laptop into the kitchen for cooking advice.

Still, we may see the smart spoon in stores one day -- there are already some sensor spoons for sale. These spoons, meant to be used in the microwave, change color as the meal heats. When you see that your spoon is a certain color, you'll know it's time to eat. One variation is specifically for babies, so that a caregiver will know if food is too hot for a baby's gums.

Want to learn more about smart technology and smart spoons? Dig into the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Cheng, Connie and Leonardo Bonanni. "Intelligent Spoon." MIT Media Lab: Counter Intelligence Group. (April 10, 2008) http://www.media.mit.edu/ci/projects/intelligentspoon.html
  • "Color Changing Spoons." Shop.com. (April 10, 2008) http://cj.shop.com/COLOR_CHANGING_SPOONS-10703520-p!.shtml
  • Deis, Ronald. C. "Salad Dressings and Sauces: Through Thick and Thin." Food Product Design. May 1, 2001. (April 10, 2008) http://www.foodproductdesign.com/articles/463/463_0501ap.html
  • Edwards, Jen. "Smart Appliances: Alive or Dead?" First Glimpse. June 1, 2005. (April 10, 2008) http://www.firstglimpsemag.com/Editorial/article.asp?article=articles/2005/y0205/17y05/1 7y05.asp&guid
  • Greenberg, Andy. "Gadgets for Your Future Kitchen." Forbes. Feb. 11, 2008. (April 10, 2008) http://www.forbes.com/2008/02/08/kitchen-gadgets-luxury-tech-personal- cx_ag_0211kitchen.html
  • Patterson, Daniel. "Do Recipes Make You a Better Cook?" Food & Wine. June 2006. (April 10, 2008) http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/do-recipes-make-you-a-better-cook
  • Schwab, Emily. "Even the kitchen sink." Boston Globe. May 4, 2005. (April 10, 2008) http://www.boston.com/ae/food/articles/2005/05/04/ even_the_kitchen_sink/
  • "Sugar's Functional Roles in Cooking & Food Preparation." The Sugar Association. (April 10, 2008) http://www.sugar.org/uploadedFiles/Media/Publications/sugarsfunctionalroles.pdf
  • "Tasting Spoons." Spoons & Things. (April 10, 2008) http://www.spoonsandthings.com/SPOONS.htm
  • "Why won't my toddler eat with a spoon?" Baby Center. February 2008. (April 10, 2008) http://www.babycenter.in/toddler/nutrition/selffeedingexpert/