New Laser Zaps Toxic French Fries

Posted on Sep 12, 2017

Earlier this year, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) issued warnings about eating over-fried potatoes, burnt toast and crisps that can contain cancer-causing chemicals such as acrylamide, deeming them a serious health threat to billions of consumers.

During the Summer, Matter PR helped promote the work of an award-winning young scientist who has developed a new laser system that scans peeled potatoes in the factory to detect toxic compounds and prevent them from reaching the consumer.

This new technique has been developed by Lien Smeesters, 28, at the B-PHOT Brussels Photonics Team at the University of Brussels, in collaboration with Tomra Sorting Solutions. It employs a new sensor that scans peeled potatoes, weeding out food that may cause high levels of the toxic chemical.

Reported by 35 different media, our story reached over 7 million individuals worldwide. Coverage included key campaign targets such as Digital Trends, Yahoo News, De Morgen, Fresh Plaza, Bakery and Snacks, Quality Assurance & Food Safety, The Engineer, and Laser Focus World.

Given how important frites are in Belgium, it also made it on to prime-time Belgian TV News. Following the campaign, Dr. Semesters said: “I never thought that the topic would ever reach such media attention – I’m now getting lots of email enquiries about my work. Thank you for writing the article about our research – without it, all these articles would never have been published. Thanks for everything, Matter PR really did a great job!”

At present, raw potatoes that produce an excess of the carcinogenic chemical acrylamide cannot be detected in a fast, sensitive, and non-destructive way.

Smeesters solution works by scanning the ‘free falling’ food items, such as potatoes, from both the front and back with a laser that employs ‘spatially resolved spectroscopy’, a non-invasive imaging technique using infrared light.

When the laser beam hits a potato, part of the light will be internally scattered during interaction with the tissue. A bad potato produces a deviating internal scattering signal, owing to the high acrylamide precursors, and therefore the system can recognize a ‘fingerprint’ of the undesirable food’.

This unwanted food item is spotted in mid-air as it begins to fall. Selected by the internal processor, the potato is then ‘knocked out’ of the batch by being blasted with a stream of air and into a reject bin before it hits the conveyor belt below.

The sensor is able to do this with each and every individual potato scanning and rejecting in tiny fractions of a second.

Dr Smeesters explains, “Not all potatoes result in excessive acrylamide formation during frying. We have sought to spot the undesirable potatoes when they are in their raw, peeled stage. After scanning with laser beams, the good potatoes will emit a different light signal than the unsuited ones leading to an unambiguous detection.”

Having filed a patent describing the use of this detection method, the laser scanner will be integrated into one of Tomra’s industrial in-line sorting machines, detecting and discarding food items that may contain excessive acrylamide precursors.

Several tons of products could be examined per hour to look for these carcinogenic compounds without using dyes or chemical additives, and without damaging or even touching the food.

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The driving force behind the detection method, Dr Lien Smeesters, 28, post-doctoral researcher at the University in Brussels in the B-PHOT Brussels Photonics Team and recent winner of the Student Innovation Award at the Photonics Public Private Partnership Annual Meeting, describes the motivation for the project:

“When frying potatoes, acrylamide formation is one of the biggest concerns of the potato-processing agriculture industry. At present raw potatoes that produce an excess of acrylamide cannot be detected in a fast, sensitive and non-destructive way.”

“Therefore, we have worked with Tomra Sorting Solutions to develop a spatially-resolved spectroscopic sensor that identifies raw potatoes with high acrylamide precursor concentrations, on basis of their internal scattering properties, in miliseconds.”


This story was part of an ongoing Matter PR campaign on behalf of Photonics21 – the European Technology Platform (ETP) for photonics, a technology encompassing all of the products and processes around the emission, manipulation and detection of light. Photonics is integral to a wide range of industries that include the medical, healthcare, transport, manufacturing, and telecommunications sectors.