And they could also give makers of premium-priced functional foods an edge as the tool allows consumers to more easily compare the benefits of different products on the same shelf, say the Finnish researchers behind the tool.
The team from the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT), the University of Kuopio and the Helsinki School of Economics, have developed software that transforms a mobile phone with camera into a barcode reader.
Currently about 15 per cent of the mobile phones on the global market have an in-built camera, but this will increase to 40 per cent by next year, say the researchers.
With the new, patented technology, consumers just pass the phone across a product's barcode before it locates the requested nutrient information using an existing database of product information commonly supplied by food manufacturers to retailers. Typically this process takes five seconds.
The prototype has been developed with two consumer groups in mind - weight-watchers and lactose intolerant - but it could be used to source information on specific nutrients or food allergens, besides calories and dairy protein content.
The concept effectively bypasses the increasingly controversial issue of labelling nutritional information.
"The information that is there is difficult to read when printed in small font on packs," VTT research professor Caj Sodergard told NutraIngredients.com.
The technology also meets a growing trend for personalized nutrition, similar to a service launched recently by a Canadian company. MyFoodPhone allows people to send an image of their meal, taken by their mobile phone, to a dietician for comment and analysis.
"People are more and more interested in what they are consuming and health is central to this. This could be one instrument that allows them to choose products based on their own profile. Information on labels is not relevant for each person," added Sodergard.
About 100 Finnish consumers were recruited to test the service over a few weeks. According to VTT, they found the product-specific information useful, particularly on a personal level, although the technology was more often used in the home than in shops.
"We are a bit shy and uncomfortable using it in shops but this could change," explained Sodergard.
Also some consumers were not familiar with a camera phone.
But the service can also be used at home via the Internet. It does offer some real benefits to the health-conscious consumer, including a means of comparing products, and a tool to keep a food diary. Nutrition information is shown in terms of a typical portion size of the product.
Consumers can also use an exercise calculator to check how long they should exercise in order to burn off consumed food, and calculate their body mass index.
The pilot system includes information on approximately 700 products made by companies like Raisio, Valio and Fazer Bakeries that were minority funders of the project.
However, if it was developed commercially it could access current databases such as the GS system used by manufacturers and retailers in Finland or Udex in the UK.
VTT is currently in discussions with GS about the feasibility of this exchange.
The research organisation is also investigating how to improve telecommunication connections to make the barcode reading easier.
"The business model is not fully there yet but typically this technology would cost very little - just the telecommunication costs which would close to zero based on the little data involved," said Soregard.
Funding could be sought from governments looking to improve public health, and costs could also be covered by advertising, he added.
Nutrition labels, the small window of a food product, are currently in the spotlight as industry and government deliberate how information provided thereon could help tackle poor nutrition and obesity, and educate the consumer about healthy diets.
The European Commission proposed a revision of its labelling laws in 2003 but is still a long way from drafting a new directive. However UK retailer Tesco has recently changed labels on hundreds of its own-label products to include the amount of salt, fat, saturated fat, sugar and calories per serving of each product in order to make nutritional value more transparent to consumers.