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Food sensor

Health: ENEA develops portable laser system for food fraud detection

FoodSensor is a portable laser device based on a traffic light system developed at ENEA to rapidly detect food adulteration

 “Safe, simple to use even by non-expert personnel, it can be carried in a hand case. To detect food adulteration, is enough to put a small sample into the device without pre-treatment or chemical reagents”, explained Luca Fiorani, ENEA researcher at the Diagnostics and Metrology Laboratory of the Frascati Research Centre.

FoodSensor was tested on saffron, a very expensive spice often adulterated by adding tartrazine, a synthetic yellow dye used by the food industry, or turmeric, due to its typical colour. “Herbs and spices hold a significant share of the food market, valued at approximately four billion dollars. Saffron is the fourth of the top five foods targeted for adulteration, after olive oil, milk and honey”, explained Fiorani.

ENEA researchers created various mixtures containing tartrazine and turmeric in decreasing percentages - from 20% to 2% -. The aim was to verify the ability and sensitivity of the laser device to detect increasingly smaller traces of other substances than saffron. “In just a few minutes, FoodSensor tells us if the sample is authentic, suspicious or fraudulent, thanks to a new user-friendly interface that signals the result as a traffic light, i.e. with a green, yellow and red light respectively”, said Fiorani.

In addition to saffron, lab experiments were also conducted on milk, olive oil, rice, fruit juices and oregano, which allowed ENEA researchers to develop special databases containing the so-called absorption spectra, i.e. the particular 'light' that each food component or contaminant absorbs when it’s hit by the laser beam (and which identifies it).

The new laser was also tested as part of another ENEA study dedicated to the geographical traceability of extra virgin olive oil. In particular, FoodSensor allowed to analyze samples of olive leaves and the results confirmed the grouping of the samples by geographical origin based on the analysis of the elements contained in the olives.

 “The technology behind FoodSensor is photoacoustic laser spectroscopy. Technically, an infrared laser beam is 'shot' on the sample. The sample in turn heats up, expands and generates a pressure wave, a sort of 'echo' which is heard as sound through a microphone. In this way any substance can be analyzed without its molecules being altered, enabling real-time traceability of food fraud”, concluded Fiorani.

The ENEA team has already started collaborating with various international industries such as Alascom, Mérieux NutriSciences, mirSense, Orsell and Tecnoalimenti. But its scope will go beyond food safety: it has been included among the key technologies in some project proposals for protection against CBRNe risk (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives), one of which has been recently approved by the European Commission.

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For more information please contact:

Luca Fiorani, ENEA - Diagnostics and Metrology Laboratory -