The availability of adulterated food products in the market has led to a number of health problems. In response to this, people are now moving towards the use of organic food products, which are naturally produced, safe, healthy, and of higher quality. In addition, several new electronic methods have been devised to ensure proper labelling of these organic products
In the present times, human health is degrading fast due to available reasons such as dependency on technology, lack of hard work, and adulterated food products available in the market.
Adulteration of food products (whether raw or cooked) takes place at every level—be it cultivation, production, marketing, or consumer levels. People are therefore getting attracted towards organic food products, whose market is steadily increasing worldwide. Consumers want to use organic food products as they believe these are naturally produced, safe, healthy, and of higher quality. Organic food products are grown without using pesticides and weedicides, which can affect the chemical composition of organic food products.
Organic food and its labelling
Organic food products are produced by methods that comply with the specific standards of organic farming but may vary worldwide. Private and government agencies are regulating the production and processing of organic products by restricting the use of certain pesticides, weedicides, and fertilisers in the farming methods as well as the use of irradiation, industrial solvents, or synthetic food additives.
The labelling of organic food products is the need of the hour to strengthen consumers’ trust. Organic products often have a number of labels on them depending on the place of their origin and testing, but the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) organic label is the only one that’s federally certified by accredited agents. Here are some of the general standards fixed for the production and processing of food products, which can then be labelled or certified as organic:
- Food products are grown and processed according to the guidelines based on several factors such as soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives
- Producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods
- Product is assigned as organic if it is grown on soil that has used no prohibited substances (pesticides, weedicides, and fertilisers) for three years prior to harvest
- Similarly, regarding organic meat, the regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviour, fed hundred per cent organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones
- Regarding processed multi-ingredient foods, the organic standards specify additional regulations prohibiting artificial preservatives, colours, or flavours and require that their ingredients are organic
- No organic food is grown or handled using genetically modified organisms
A comparison between organic and conventional food products
With only some recognised differences between nutrient and anti-nutrient contents of organically and conventionally produced food, the variable nature of food production, shipping, storage, and handling it is difficult to generalise the results. Moreover, from the perspective of science and consumers, there is not enough evidence to support the claims that eating organic food is safer or healthier in comparison to conventional food. Even the several claims suggesting that organic food tastes better are not supported by tests. Further, organic farming has higher production costs and lower yields, and thus higher consumer prices as compared to conventional food.
But still, the demand for organic food is high as consumers are concerned about their personal health and environment. Becoming familiar with the organic label and understanding its claim empower consumers to make informed decisions about the food they purchase. Consumers can look for the identity of the certifier on a packaged product for verifying that the organic product meets organic standards. However, some people are always trying to sell conventional food as organic to earn more money.
The consumer’s interest in organic foods is increasing, and so is the need for robust analytical tools for their authenticate labelling and certification as organic. The certification of food products as ‘organic’ is protected by laws in every country and can be used by producers who have received official certification according to standards. In some countries, organic food production is being developed as a self-regulated industry. The food products marketed as organic are to be produced in a way that complies with organic standards set by national governments and international organic industry trade organisations.
On these lines, currently, the European Union, the United States, Canada, Japan, and many other countries require producers to obtain special certification based on government-defined standards to market food as organic. Products are tested for authenticity before being certified as organic. This certification acts as a guarantee to consumers that the organic food items have been produced and processed without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers and do not contain any contaminant.
There are different biomarkers/analytical approaches available for the authentication of organic produce. Services of organic food testing laboratories are often utilised to analyse organic foods for their nutrition content and for the added health benefits they might claim. Food testing assures consumers that the products they are purchasing are authentically organic.
Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has recently operationalised the Food Safety and Standards (Organic Foods) Regulation, 2017 so that the food standards and safety are maintained. Food testing laboratories provide these services to ensure that organic food productions, as well as processed products, are free of chemical and microbial contaminants. Before certifying food items, the certifying authorities like National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) and Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) India also need analysis reports from organic food testing laboratories stating that organic foods contain no residues of pesticides, heavy metals, antibiotics, etc.
The complete compliance with regulations in marking food products as organic is not strictly monitored due to the hand and glove approach between the regulation enforcement agencies and producers. Therefore non-organic foods are often being falsely labelled and marketed as organic foods. There are several chemical and electronic methods in use for the authentication of organic foods, but taking into consideration the easy handling and non-invasive nature of electronic methods, this article only highlights the growth in electronic authentication of organic foods.
Currently, there is an increase in consumer awareness about the quality and authenticity of the food. With ever-increasing health problems at present, a growing number of consumers are willing to pay extra for fruits, vegetables, and other food items labelled organic, but whether they’re getting what the label claims is another matter. Now scientists studying conventional and organic foods are devising new ways, in general, and electronic methods, in particular, to make sure farms are labelling their products appropriately, which could help prevent organic food frauds and cheating of consumers. Nowadays, for food analysis, electronic sensors are used because they require less time and operate at a lower cost per analysis than other techniques.
1. Authenticating supplier’s identity and data on organic food products
Organic food product supplier’s digital authentication or e-authentication may be used when referring to the electronic authentication process that confirms or certifies a person’s identity and work. In a time, when fraud and identity theft have become rampant, electronic authentication can be a more secure method of verifying the identity of the supplier.
There are various e-authentication methods that can be used to authenticate a supplier’s identity as well as data of organic food products ranging from a password to higher levels of security that utilise multifactor authentication (MFA). When used in conjunction with an electronic signature, it can provide evidence of whether data about organic food products received/reported has been tampered with after being signed by its original sender.
Under electronic authentication, a quick response code, a type of 2D bar code is used to provide easy access to information with the help of a smartphone or QR scanner.
Information like authentication code, grower code, name, location, contact number, Facebook URL, production date, expiry date, and regulatory authority URL about authentic organic growers can be embedded on QR code that can be tracked easily at no cost. The model of adopting a QR code-based labelling mechanism for organic produces drastically better trustworthiness among organic consumers.
2. Electronic food analyser
Immediate testing is important instead of sending the food items for analysis to expensive food testing labs and waiting for results. For this, we need electronic devices that we can use on our own to authenticate contaminated food products. OrganaDx (developed by MyDx, Inc., USA) acts as a preliminary tester before food products go to testing labs.
It detects harmful chemicals in food within minutes. The analyser offers one of the most practical food quality testing options for consumers today. It is a battery-operated handheld electronic analyser for consumers that contains a sensor to test for certain pesticides and helps to verify the safety of cannabis plants, fruits, and vegetables.
OrganaDx is the most practical food quality tester that allows detecting pesticides in food, ensuring that we do not unknowingly consume potentially dangerous cancer-causing pesticides at unsafe levels. It also allows testing of food quality for heavy metals to see whether it is safe for consumption.
The device is about the size of two iPhone 5s stacked together that fit into the palm of a hand. It has a small chamber where the sample is put to have a complete analysis of various chemicals in it. The analyser is connected via Bluetooth to a smartphone app, which people can use to report their data. The data will get shared (but information about the person who enters the data will be hidden) so that others can also benefit.
3. Electronic noses and tongues
Adulteration of food products due to use of pesticides, weedicides, and fertilisers during production, and use of additives on the way to consumers is one of the grave health risks. The concern for the quality of food products is relevant for producers, distributors, retailers, consumers, and national governments.
The electronic tongue and nose in the food industry authenticate tests of the different groups of food products. This is a rapid and powerful technique, which requires no special sample preparation to determine the quality of a product for the determination of food authenticity, including adulteration. The use of these devices involves electronic products of advanced chemical and physical sciences combined with intuitive integration of microprocessors, advanced bioinformatics, and statistics.
The tests are based on voltammetric, bio-electronic, and piezoelectric platforms made from a variety of components. Electronic tongue or nose makes use of components based on the use of nanoparticles, enzyme biosensors, heavy metals, graphite-epoxy composites, metal oxide semiconductors, microelectrodes, microfluidic channels, pre-manufactured gas sensors, redox enzymes, and others as ideal resources for understanding and utilising their power in food science. The versatility of electronic devices lies with their capability to analyse multiple food items.
4. Blockchain and organic food
To ensure whether or not we are consuming authentic chemical-free food produce calls the need for a technology solution that can help resolve issues in one of the most effective, trusted, regulated, and consumer-driven food systems in the world. A new system to electronically certify organic products and ingredients has come into force, promising to tighten traceability, fight fraud, and collect reliable data on organic trade. The e-system (blockchain) tracks the movement of food products across the world. This aims to reduce fraud risks by providing greater transparency in the supply of organic products to consumers.
The blockchain was born with cryptocurrencies but is now growing in every sector where transactions take place. The blockchain is the technological basis of a platform in which those who participate in the supply chain interact with each other. It is an ecosystem in which from the suppliers and growers of organic seeds to commercial operators and certified processing companies, all are connected at different levels.
Blockchain—a distributed ledger technology offers the much-required traceability and transparency in an otherwise complex food supply chain by preventing fraudulence and ensuring the authenticity of products to the consumers. Besides capturing data at every point within the supply chain ecosystem, a cloud and IoT powered blockchain system also ensures that it is shared amongst every supply chain participant such as farmer, manufacturer, supplier, distributor, and finally the consumer. The security of data is the immutability element of blockchain, which adds an additional level of security and prohibits any sort of fraudulent activity.
5. NIRS technology
The application of well-developed Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) can be a rapid, cost-effective, and non-destructive method to verify the organic identity of food products. Recently, NIRS has been widely implemented in the food industry for analysing ingredients in foodstuffs and can be used without sample preparation. Spectral regions related to protein and fat content are among the most important ones for the classification model.
The models are based on data preprocessing using direct orthogonal signal correction (DOC), standard normal variant (SNV), and first and second derivatives provide the most successful results in terms of median sensitivity and median specificity.
6. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy
Figuring out whether a fruit or vegetable has been grown under organic conditions is full of complications. The most reliable authentication technique currently used is based on analysing the stable isotope composition of nitrogen in food products, which is also not foolproof.
Scientists and engineers are looking towards the use of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to authenticate food products, including honey and olive oil. New methods with the potential to authenticate different organic foods based on the use of NMR technology are under development.
In conclusion, the development of fast, cost-effective, non-destructive, and portable electronic authentication techniques to certify the organic food products in the near future will be of great help for consumers to have healthy consumption of food and a safe environment.
Dr S.S. Verma is professor at Department of Physics, Sant Longowal Institute of Engineering and Technology, Sangrur, Punjab