Edible Silk “QR Code” Could Help Tackle Counterfeit Alcohol And Medicine

Researchers developed a silk protein matrix code that is edible and can be used to store information like the authenticity of a product such as a drug or alcohol.


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockJun 13 2022, 14:23 UTC
The tag in the tested whiskey. Image Credit: Purdue University photo/John Underwood
The tag in the tested whiskey. Image Credit: Purdue University photo/John Underwood

Counterfeit products are not just handbags and shoes – food, drinks, and medicine can also be reproduced and sold online, sometimes with dangerous consequences. Researchers have now found a way to guarantee the authenticity of products before we put them in our mouths.


Using silk proteins they created an edible matrix code, which works a little bit like a QR code. These could be placed on drugs and in other products. Then, using a smartphone, any person could validate that they are about to ingest the real deal and not an inferior (or even dangerous) copy. The breakthrough is reported in ACS Central Science.  

“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,” senior author Professor Young Kim, from Purdue University, said in a statement.

The code is imprinted on a fluorescent silk tag. The code is invisible to the naked eye but can be seen using electronic devices shining a light on the tag. This worked in a variety of settings with different light conditions.   

“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 added. “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.”


Given that some liquid medicines can contain alcohol and that the counterfeit market is also a problem for liquor producers, the team tested the silk protein tag in whisky. The tag was tested for 10 months in a 40 percent whisky; it maintained its shape without altering the taste of the drink.

“Alcohol spirits are vulnerable to counterfeiting. There are a lot of fake whiskeys being sold,” said first author Jung Woo Leem – recent works suggested that 18 percent of adults in the UK have bought counterfeit spirits.

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