All it takes is a quick trip down the nearest grocery store produce aisle to know that organic food comes at a significant markup over nonorganic versions of the same products. The global organic food market is a $62 billion business. But are consumers forking over an extra couple of dollars (or more) per pound for those organic apples or peaches getting what they’re paying for?
“Because consumers are prepared to purchase organic food at higher prices, the risk for conventional produce fraudulently labeled as ‘organic’ has also been increasing,” writes a team of German scientists in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in July, “To prevent and detect counterfeit, there is a strong need for analytical methods that allow the verification of organic cultivation.”
That’s exactly what they say they’ve developed: a more reliable technique for authenticating organic food using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.
Monika Hohmann and colleagues from the University of Würzburg and at the Bavarian Health and Food Safety Authority report that their method accurately distinguished between organic and conventionally grown tomatoes for more than 350 samples.
The tomato samples came from a carefully controlled greenhouse at the Bavarian State Institute for Viticulture and Horticulture, where Hohmann measures NMR spectra from regularly taken samples. “We are building up a database from the spectra, and this enabled us to detect the differences between the organically grown tomatoes and the conventional ones in the test setup,” Hohmann says.
The NMR technique may be superior to current methods of organic food testing, such as measuring different forms of nitrogen isotopes, according to the German team. Some fertilization methods used in organic farming make it difficult to distinguish between the nitrogen composition of organic versus conventional produce.
The group’s next steps will include adding a wider variety of tomatoes to the data set, and testing the technique on other fruits and vegetables.