A Food App You're Apt to Like; A Brand-New Invention for Getting Shelf-Life Information

Foodkeeper appFinding better ways to help consumers figure out how long their edible purchases will last is an ongoing priority.  Recently, the U.S. government and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been working together on the matter, and they've come up with an app called Foodkeeper with shelf life information on some 400 products including meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, and produce. Also for shelf-life answers, chemists at MIT have developed an inexpensive portable sensor that can detect gases produced by decaying meat; it tells consumers whether to eat that chicken or discard it.  Let's learn more about both of these projects.




Try it; you'll like it, we're telling readers.


"WAIT A MINUTE!" readers respond. "I can't shift to Foodkeeper. It would be disloyal to Shelf Life Advice, my helpmate for the past six years."


Never fear. This app will not make Shelf Life Advice obsolete.  Both sources have shelf life info about hundreds of products, but they don't always cover the same products or the same food information.  (Examples: Shelf Life Advice does not cover baby foods or include shelf life data on obscure items such as "cherimoya," as Foodkeeper does).  However, Shelf Life Advice (as our loyal users know) does contain Tips and FAQs on many aspects of food handling (such as advice about safe grilling), news stories about the latest food trends, warnings about current food recalls, and much more. Foodkeeper is primarily a speedy and easy-to-use guide to shelf life info.


A creation of the USDA, Cornell University, and the Food Marketing Institute, Foodkeeper will tell you (as Shelf Life Advice does) how long a food will last on the counter, in the fridge, and frozen.  Read on for a summary of other features this app has, and play around with the app to find ways it can help you. 


Here's the description of the app posted online by its creators:


"Every year, billions of pounds of good food go to waste in the U.S. because home cooks are not sure of the quality or safety of items. USDA estimates that 21% of the available food in the U.S. goes uneaten at the consumer level. In total, 36 pounds of food per person is wasted each month at the retail and consumer levels!


"Our new application will help you understand how different storing methods affect a product’s shelf life. This should help you maximize the storage life of foods and beverages in your home. In addition, the application can remind you to use items before they are likely to spoil.


"Application Features:


The FoodKeeper application offers users valuable storage advice about more than 400 food and beverage items including various types of baby food, dairy products and eggs, meat, poultry, produce, seafood, and more. With the application you can:

  • Find specific storage timelines for the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry, depending on the nature of the product;
  • Get cooking tips for cooking methods of meat, poultry and seafood products;
  • Note in your devices’ calendars when products were purchased and receive notifications when they are nearing the end of their recommended storage date;
  • Search the application with swipe gestures or voice control; and,
  • Submit a question to USDA using the ‘Ask Karen’ feature of the application. ‘Ask Karen’ is USDA’s 24/7 virtual representative. The system provides information about preventing foodborne illness, safe food handling and storage, and safe preparation of meat, poultry, and egg products.

"The application is part of a larger effort between USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called the U.S. Food Waste Challenge.


"FoodKeeper was originally a publication containing valuable advice to help consumers understand the shelf life of products when stored in the pantry, refrigerator or freezer. In 2015, partners turned the publication’s guidelines into this application.


"The app is available for Android and Apple devices." [Reviews for each application discuss the strengths and limitations of the app.]


"Storage times listed are intended as useful guidelines and are not hard-and-fast rules. Some foods may deteriorate more quickly while others may last longer than the times suggested."


A Sensor That Can Detect Spoiled Meat


This wonderful item seems to have no name yet, and it's not available for consumers to purchase at this time.  But be on the look-out for it.  The device could save you money and settle those arguments that spouses often have--the conservative one who's ready to throw that 4-day old steak into the garbage and the radical risk-taker who wants to throw it on the grill.  The hope is that this invention will not only settle domestic disputes but also cut down on the enormous food waste problem in the U.S. and globally.


Here's how it works, according to MIT News: The sensor, which consists of chemically modified nanotubes, "can detect gases emitted by rotting meat, allowing consumers to determine whether the meat in their grocery store or refrigerator is safe to eat." To learn more about the science behind this invention, go to this article in MIT News.


MIT researchers tested their sensor on pork, chicken, cod, and salmon. They found that, in the fridge, all four types stayed fresh over four days. Left unrefrigerated, the samples all decayed sooner than that at varying rates.


This invention is not a totally new concept. Other sensors can detect signs of decaying meat, but these are usually large and expensive and also require expertise to operate. “The advantage we have is these are the cheapest, smallest, easiest-to-manufacture sensors,” says Timothy Swager, the Professor of Chemistry at MIT.


The MIT News article also points this out: "The sensor is similar to other carbon nanotube devices that Swager’s lab has developed in recent years, including one that detects the ripeness of fruit. All of these devices work on the same principle: Carbon nanotubes can be chemically modified so that their ability to carry an electric current changes in the presence of a particular gas."


This new device requires very little power and could be incorporated into a wireless platform that allows a regular smartphone to read output from carbon nanotube sensors such as this one. The researchers have applied for a patent on the technology.


Food scientist Dr. Karin Allen (a member of the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board) offered the following comment on how this invention might work: "If it’s testing gas and it’s able to be used in packaging, it could be something as simple as a sticker with the sensor (carbon nanotubes) embedded within the top layer.  We’re already using similar inventions that indicate when foods have been exposed to unsafe temperatures."


What type of gas might the sensor be looking for?  Here's Dr. Allen's guess on that question:  "It’s specific to meats, so it’s really looking for breakdown products from protein.  Protein contains a lot of nitrogen, so I’m guessing it’s sensing trace amounts of ammonia gas (NH4), but there are some others they could be using."





foodkeeper.gov "New USDA 'Foodkeeper' App: Your New Tool for Smart Food Storage" 



newsoffice.mit.edu "MIT sensor detects spoiled meat" 



Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences




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