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Food & Drink

This edible tag can spot fake whisky

The tags have not affected the taste of the whiskey.

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A QR code on an edible silk tag that manufacturers can place in bottles of whisky. (John Underwood/Purdue University via SWNS)

By Dean Murray via SWNS

Would you like a QR code with that?

Boffins have created an edible tag that can spot fake whisky – after it was revealed 18% of adults in the U.K. experienced purchasing counterfeit alcoholic spirits.

The team of biomedical engineers from Purdue University and South Korea developed a QR code on consumable silk that manufacturers can place in bottles of booze.

Drinkers then use a smartphone app to confirm the whisky’s authenticity.

The new anti-counterfeiting technology, published in the journal ACS Central Science, could be a step toward not only finding a solution for the alcohol industry but also addressing fake medications.

The researchers say the code on the fluorescent silk tag is the equivalent of a barcode or QR code and is not visible to the naked eye.

The tags are also edible, causing no issues if a person swallowed it while downing a shot of whisky. The tags have not affected the taste of the whisky.

The innovation is the work of biomedical engineers from Purdue University and the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences in South Korea.

Jungwoo Leem, a postdoctoral research associate, and Young Kim, both of Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, are part of a global research team that has developed an edible QR code on a tag made of specialized silk which could help consumers detect fake whisky. (John Underwood/Purdue University via SWNS)

Team leader Young Kim, associate head for research and an associate professor in Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, explains: "Some liquid medicines contain alcohol. We wanted to test this first in whisky because of whisky’s higher alcohol content.

“Researchers apply alcohol to silk proteins to make them more durable. Because they tolerate alcohol, the shape of the tag can be maintained for a long time.”

Kim and Jungwoo Leem, a postdoctoral research associate, said making the tags involves processing fluorescent silk cocoons from specialized silkworms to create a biopolymer, which can be formed into a variety of patterns to encode the information. You can watch a video demonstration of the tag by Kim and Leem.

“Alcohol spirits are vulnerable to counterfeiting. There are a lot of fake whiskys being sold,” said Leem, referencing other studies mentioned in the journal article about the economic cost and loss of purchasing fake alcoholic spirits, including how 18 percent of adults in the United Kingdom experienced purchasing counterfeit alcoholic spirits.

“Counterfeit items, such as medicines and alcohol, are big issues around the world. There are numerous examples of large amounts of fake medications sold throughout the world, which, in some instances, kill people,” said Kim.

“Online pharmacies sell controlled substances to teens. People can buy counterfeit opioids easily. This work is extremely important for patients and buyers in addressing this issue.

A QR code on an edible silk tag that manufacturers can place in bottles of whisky. (John Underwood/Purdue University via SWNS)

“If you have this technology on or in your medicines, you can use your smartphone to authenticate. We want to empower patients to be aware of this issue. We want to work with pharmaceutical companies and alcohol producers to help them address this issue.”

Kim and Leem placed tags in various brands and price points of whisky (80 proof, 40% alcohol per volume) over a 10-month period and were able to continually activate the tags and codes with a smartphone app.

One of the ways of bringing this issue to light is to literally shine a light on the tags. The team developed ways and methods for the tags to be activated by smartphones in a variety of light settings.

Kim said the tags are an additional authentication mechanism for marked safety seals on bottles or pills and could help by being placed in high-dollar bottles of alcohol or on expensive medications individually.

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