Food processors and manufacturers have a huge say in how food is packaged and labelled, and how that information is presented has changed over time. How food was being produced 60 years ago, differs from 40 years ago, which in turn, differs from today. As we head into the middle part of the 21st century, there are many issues that surround the industry, sustainability and extending shelf life being two, as well as the influx of plant-based proteins that are starting to hit the shelves in supermarkets. Also, what role does technology play in the way we consume foods, and for that matter labelling, too.
From a purely consumption point of view, what goes into our food is also becoming more relevant. Not that long ago, food labels on packaging and tins were rudimentary – a rundown of basic ingredients. Today, there are minute breakdowns that include the amount of sugar, sodium, fats (trans, polyunsaturated etc), energy counts – a mass of information that can help us make an informed decision about what we put in our bodies. However, there is one thing that can’t be labelled – can’t be measured before consumption – how will your glucose spike?
According to the World Health Organisation, in 1980, 108 million people in the world were suffering from Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. By 2014, it was at 422 million, and by 2045 it is expected to be 700 million.
Is sugar good for you?
There has been a myth that if you eat a lot of sugar-based foods, it will increase your chances of getting diabetes. However, sugar itself is not a risk factor, but putting on weight by eating too many sugar-based foods can be one indicator for getting diabetes in addition to a whole array of other diseases. Thus, the packaging on food labels gives as much information as possible so people can make an informed choice and hopefully help consumers mitigate conditions that might affect them getting the disease.”
Once you have diabetes, it brings on another raft of issues, the least being checking blood sugar levels on a daily basis by the intrusive finger “prick” method.
It is something that has been on Professor Sharath Sriram and Peter Vranes’ minds for some time. Sriram, a professor of Functional Materials and Microsystems at RMIT University, and Vranes, a chemical engineer by trade and CEO of wearable devices company Nutromics, knew that there had to be an easier way for diabetics to help control the condition.
Detecting the right levels – the patch
Along with Romar Engineering, the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC), and Griffith University, both Sriram and Vranes are trying to create a device that will fit the brief of finding a simpler way to not only measure glucose, but discover which foods spiked an individual’s blood-sugar levels. They have come up with a wearable device – what they are calling the Smart Patch – that will hopefully help do away with the need for the prick test, allow people to streamline their diets, and in turn will give some food processors and manufacturers an insight into peoples’ dietary needs. Not only will the patch measure glucose, but the developers are hoping that it will be able to measure other biometrics once it comes to market. Why start with glucose?
“A few years ago, a company came up with a way of continuously measuring glucose in the blood,” Vranes said. “They developed the continuous glucose monitor (CGM) that you put on your arm or stomach, and it continuously monitors your glucose level. It was a massive innovation because there are about 420 million diabetics in the world and every single one of them hates pricking their fingers multiple times a day. If they don’t do it often enough their glucose intake can be poorly controlled, there can be complications. We are leveraging some of that work around glucose.”
Although the patch uses similar technologies it is how it is put together that makes it different – it is less intrusive, according to Sriram. Instead of using blood to measure glucose levels it uses interstitial fluid, which is just under the skin. And how does it stick to the skin and measure the fluid?
“It is a bit like Velcro and has micro needles on the surface, which have micro sensors embedded in them,” said Sriram. “Once you place it on the skin, it is pain-free but it penetrates skin enough to sample interstitial fluid. Unlike a blood test, which can be painful, this is a lot easier. You just put a sticker on your body and it measures real time biomarkers in your body.”
While the point of the device is to measure glucose spikes, the main reason it was first thought of was it would enable people to streamline their diets to their own needs because different foods spike glucose in different people in diverse ways, according to both Sriram and Vranes.
“We all eat multiple times a day and we have no idea what the food is doing to us in a biochemical way,” said Vranes. “The typical notion in the public is that a food is either non-healthy or healthy for us. For example, a meat pie is not healthy, a lettuce is. A lot of research in the past few years has come out and said, a food is not inherently unhealthy, instead some foods are inherently unhealthy for individuals. You and I can have the same meal, I get a big glucose spike after that meal, called a post prandial glucose spike and that’s really bad for me. If I keep on doing that, it is going to drive me to diabetes. You can have exactly the same meal and get no or little spike. You can eat that all the time and it is not going to drive you to diabetes.”
“Different forms of food have different glycaemic indexes. All of them give you the same amount of energy but it’s a case of how spread out that energy is,” said Sriram. “Though we are talking about different spikes, there is a bell-shaped curve – a glycaemic curve. It is a question with each individual; is that curve narrow and are you getting all your energy in one shot or is it spread out and happening over a longer period of time?”
The differentiating factor
What makes the patch different from current devices on the market? Quite a few things, according to Vranes.
“Our Smart Patch reads glucose, but importantly, interprets the data, compares the data to the meals consumed, and then advises whether the meal was good (green), poor (red) or in between (orange) for the individual,” he said. “This is all seamless for the user. If an individual was to try and attempt this with a CGM, they would have to do all the data analysis and interpretation themselves which is unlikely outside of a few biohackers. The technology has applications in other verticals as well.”
Vranes sees the patch as a solution by combining the information it gets with enough data on an individual so they can start eating and drinking to suit their body’s chemical make-up. What Vranes and Sriram want the patch to do is be predictive. In other words, to have enough data on an individual to know that if they want to eat a certain meal, they can, knowing if it is healthy for them. It will allow users to scan the back of a can and tell them which meals are good and what food items they should be avoiding.
“There are all these applications that once you get this data, you can help people and really facilitate them to have far healthier diets because they know what’s out there for them and what isn’t,” he said.
While some might baulk at wearing such a patch because it might highlight some of their favourite foods as a no-go in terms of consumption, Vranes looks at is as more of a cup half full situation.
“One of the interesting things about the research was that things that people would restrict themselves with, [they might not have to anymore] because it didn’t spike glucose like they expected,” he said. “They could start reintroducing things like ice-cream into their diet – in moderation.”
Then there is the biochemistry, physiological and biometrics of the body that have to be taken into consideration. How a person’s body reacts to eating an apple one day might change the next depending on the state of your body.
“It is important to remember that for each individual the results vary. If you are eating food under normal circumstances, the way your body generates glucose is very different from when, say, you have four days of lack of sleep,” said Sriram. “This is because your body’s biomarkers are out of sync. Your hormones are playing up. The affect the food has on you will be different from somebody else. It doesn’t matter if you wear the patch for one month and say, ‘This is my glucose profile, I know what I should eat’. If your lifestyle is changing, then the parameters are changing for you. It will personalise the diet for you.”
Microtechnology is being used in the device, not nanotechnology. The sensors on the end of the needles are at about the same thickness of a human hair. Sriram said that they deliberately did not go down to the nanoscale.
“We don’t need to go nanoscale to get the information,” he said. “There is always a trade off in the size of the object and the cost of manufacturing. The more nanoscale features you introduce, the more the cost goes up as do the manufacturing challenges. Our work with Nutromics is how do we make it manufacturable; how do you take smart electronics and keep the costs low; and how do we keep the manufacturing in Australia.”
Vranes said the technology is about two years away from being released to the public.
“At the moment we’ve done trials and testing with people and we will get their feedback, and what’s impactful for them,” he said. “When we get into the market, it is pretty well tested already. It should take only a couple of years to get all the kinks ironed out.”