Play Video

Edible QR code reveals if whiskey is fake

Manufacturers can place the QR code on an edible silk tag that in bottles of whiskey and then consumers can use a smartphone app to confirm the whiskey’s authenticity. (Credit: John Underwood/Purdue)

An edible silk tag with a QR code could one day serve as a security measure that reveals if the whiskey you’re buying is fake.

Simply using a smartphone to scan the tag could confirm the drink’s authenticity.

“Alcohol spirits are vulnerable to counterfeiting. There are a lot of fake whiskeys being sold.”

There are, of course, no tags currently placed in bottles of whiskey. But this new anticounterfeiting technology could be a step toward not only finding a solution for the alcohol industry but also addressing fake medications.

“Some liquid medicines contain alcohol. We wanted to test this first in whiskey because of whiskey’s higher alcohol content,” says Young Kim, associate head for research and an associate professor in Purdue University’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering. “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 has worked on anticounterfeit measures including cyberphysical watermarks and tags made of fluorescent silk proteins. The tags have a code that a consumer or patient can activate with a smartphone to confirm authenticity of a product.

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 whiskey. The tags have not affected the taste of the whiskey.

Kim and Jungwoo Leem, a postdoctoral research associate, say 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.

Alcohol spirits are vulnerable to counterfeiting. There are a lot of fake whiskeys being sold,” says Leem, referencing other studies mentioned in the journal article about the economic cost and loss of purchasing fake alcoholic spirits, including how 18% 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,” Kim says.

“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,” Kim says. “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 whiskey (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 a smartphone to activate the tags in a variety of light settings.

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, Kim says.

The study appears in ACS Central Science. Additional coauthors are from Kumoh National Institute of Technology and the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences, both in South Korea, and Purdue.

Funding came from the Cooperative Research Program for Agriculture Science and Technology Development, the Rural Development Administration of the Republic of Korea, the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Institutes of Health, and the Trask Innovation Fund from Purdue University.

The technology was disclosed to the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization.

Source: Purdue University