‘Genetic bar codes’ to combat counterfeit superfoods

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

KIT researchers develop new method for authenticating superfoods ©iStock/SKunevski
KIT researchers develop new method for authenticating superfoods ©iStock/SKunevski
Researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) have developed “genetic bar codes” that, they say, can be used to identify fake “superfoods”.

Consumer interest in foods that are associated with health benefits like stress-reduction, detoxification, or strengthening the immune system is growing.

According to a report from Mintel, demand for so-called “superfoods​” that deliver functional benefits is rising. Between 2011 and 2015 there was a “phenomenal​” 202% increase globally in the number of new food and drink products launched containing the terms “superfood​”, “superfruit​” or “supergrain​”, Mintel notes.

This has made once exotic items like chia seeks, moringa powder and açai or goji berries commonplace in European supermarkets and health food stores.

Researchers at KIT suggest this has resulted in a situation where consumers are exposed to mix-ups and deliberate counterfeiting.

“Thanks to globalization, special medicinal plants that grow in a single region only have a worldwide market,”​ explained Peter Nick, a professor of molecular cell biology at KIT’s Botanical Institute.

Rapidly changing superfood trends have resulted in sudden increases in demand, which frequently cannot be met by existing supply chains. A situation that has led to a “booming”​ trade in counterfeits, Nick suggested.

“The caterpillar fungus is deemed to have a strengthening and aphrodisiac effect in traditional medicine. Every year, however, the exported quantity of this mushroom is eight times that of its harvest.”

Professor Peter Nick flags concern over rising levels of 'superfood' fraud
Professor Peter Nick flags concern over rising levels of 'superfood' fraud

Difficult to identify

The temptation to capitalise on supply shortages by feeding counterfeit products into the system is compounded by the fact that exotic and unfamiliar superfoods can be difficult to identify, even for experts.

“Often, these are exotic plants and no one knows what they look like,”​ Nick observed.

Sometimes only specific species of a given genus deliver desired properties, he continued.

“One thousand four hundred species of bamboo exist, but the leaves of only three can be used to prepare the popular health-promoting tea,”​ Nick noted.

Likewise, Indian basil, also called holy basil or tulsi, will have different affects associated with consumption. Confusion can represent a safety risk, Nick continued. “The right tulsi may be helpful in case of breathing difficulties or bronchitis, but other species may cause allergic reactions.”

Due to such risks, plant products are checked for the correctness of the list of ingredients in import controls. These checks are mostly carried out microscopically with the help of botanical descriptions. “But in case of a powder of for example Chia, which is a type of sage by the way, this method is of no use,”​ Nick pointed out.

Alternative methods, such as readout of gene sequences, which are also used in paternity tests, are very time-consuming and expensive.

Bar code method 

Nick and his team have therefore developed a process based on small differences of the gene sequence to specifically apply "gene scissors"​ to certain points of the DNA strands that make up the genetic material.

Similar to a key that fits a lock, the scissors only fit a specific pattern of gene fragments that may serve as a genetic fingerprint for the species searched, he explained. If the scissors snap shut, Nick knows that this is the right plant.

“This resembles a bar code that can be read out with the corresponding scanner,"​ he explained. 

Nick has already collected 7000 of such bar codes in his database.

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