A new laser device, originally developed to detect carbon on Mars, could be used detect food fakes, including fraudulent olive oil, here on Earth.

The laser, known as an ‘isotope radio-meter’, was created by the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK and is used to scan for very small quantities of gas to identify isotopes in space. Different molecules have a ‘unique fingerprint spectrum’, allowing easy identification.

In the case of food, certain molecules are expected to be present and the laser can be adjusted to the correct frequency in order to detect these isotopes. When the frequency is adjusted to that which is specific to a certain gas, light is partially blocked and the unique pattern is generated. In this way, olive oil which does not contain the expected concentration of certain molecules, such as phenols, can be identified.

To detect fraudulent food using the device, a few milligrams of the product is burnt. During the burning, carbon dioxide is released which can be tested with the laser. This produces the unique carbon fingerprint for the product which can then be compared to a sample that is known to be a true product from the same geographical location. In this way it is possible to tell if an olive oil genuinely comes from a specific location or if it is a fake.

The laser is not only limited to use with olive oil, but may also be useful in detecting counterfeit products in other food types, such as honey made from cheap sugar instead of bees, wheat and even ‘fake’ chocolate.

There are an increasing number of counterfeit foods being sold to unassuming consumers, with the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention in January reporting the discovery of increased fake ingredients in everything from olive oil to fruit juice. China is also has particular problems in this area, with reported cases of fraudulent eggs and beef products. The new laser holds great potential for the quick, easy and accurate determination of these counterfeit products in the food chain.

Equipment currently used to identify food contaminants and fraud is bulky, but having been developed for use in space, the new laser is compact and could be used in laboratories with limited space.

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