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Analytical methods from DTU can detect food fraud

Food, fish and agriculture Food safety

Food fraud is a widespread global problem and as such, there is a need for good methods to determine that foods are what the labels state. Researchers at the Technical University of Denmark, DTU, have develop methods that can detect when foods are not what they promise.

Black pepper is the most widely used spice in the world. Even though pepper fetches a low price per kilo, due to the huge quantities that are traded globally there is lots of money to be made from ‘diluting’ ground pepper—e.g. by mixing it with crushed pepper husks, papaya seeds or chili.

In a PhD project at the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark, Amelie Sina Wilde has developed a method to prove the authenticity of black pepper and to detect fraud. She initially used so-called spectrometry to take ‘fingerprints’ of samples of both pure pepper and of fraudulent goods before feeding these ‘fingerprint’ data into a model that uses the dataset to distinguish between genuine pepper and diluted products.

Similar methods exist that can examine e.g. oregano, but this is the first time a method has been developed specifically for black pepper. Tests have shown the method to be sensitive enough as to be able to distinguish between the peppercorn itself and other parts of the plant. 

Is it actually vanilla?

There is also big money to be made in relation to adulteration of vanilla, which—unlike pepper—is one of the world’s most expensive spices.

For almost 50 years, methods for analyzing whether something is real or synthetic vanilla have existed. However, although these methods have been optimized over time, they have not been useful for analyzing the authenticity of the very small amounts of real vanilla, which some companies use in complex foods. Amelie Sina Wilde has also developed a method for this purpose in her PhD project.

She has used this method to examine whether different foods actually contain real vanilla. The study looked at different foods such as vanilla sugar and different milk and soya products that have been marketed as containing real vanilla. The analysis shows that for one fifth of the products it is doubtful that they were made with real vanilla flavour.

In her studies, Amelie Sina Wilde found that a recently developed vanilla flavour production method can potentially be used to imitate the marker typical for real vanilla flavour. This new production method is more environmental friendly than previous methods and was clearly not invented to support fraudulent activities. However, it offers an opportunity for sophisticated criminals to perpetrate food fraud and as such, the example shows that analytical methods have limitations and must constantly be adjusted to new market situations. 

Blockchain as proof of the authenticity of goods

The confirmation of the authenticity of a food product should therefore be further supported by an efficient documentation system along the supply chain. Here, blockchain based databases could be a solution. The blockchain technology makes it possible for a selected group of members to exchange information that cannot be copied or manipulated by others without it being detected.

An additional way of documenting that a food is what it claims to be could be the use of blockchain solutions. Blockchain technology makes it possible for a selected group of members to exchange information that cannot be copied or manipulated by others without it being detected. 

As such, an ice cream producer would be able to add data to a blockchain based database to document that they have purchased a sufficient amount of vanilla pods to be able to a produce the amount of vanilla ice cream, which the factory selling. A control visit at the site could then include an inspection of the purchased vanilla pods to document that the ingredient had in fact been obtained.

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The methods to determine the authenticity of black pepper and vanilla are described in further detail in Amelie Sina Wilde’s PhD thesis: Detection of Food Fraud in High Value Products - Exemplary Authentication Studies on Vanilla, Black Pepper and Bergamot Oil.

The National Food Institute works to strengthen the confidence and transparency in the food chain by developing solutions for the food control systems of the future. The work thereby supports the Institute’s vision of preventing disease and promoting health.