Scientists Use DNA to Tell Olive Oil From Snake Oil

Researchers have demonstrated an impressive way to clamp down on the counterfeit olive oil trade.

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It’s shaping up to be a great year for science. Four months into 2014 and researchers have already made several Nobel-worthy discoveries—some as complicated as observing cosmic microwave radiation with giant telescopes in the South pole.

But now that modern science has lifted the veil on the ancient structure of the universe, it’s time to turn its power toward the subject of olive oil.

For too long, criminal enterprises have been peddling counterfeit or adulterated olive oils and labeling the products as 100% Extra Virgin. In truth, a large volume of these oils are "cut" with inferior vegetable oil or beta carotene. And this illegal operation is no lemonade stand: One European anti-fraud investigator recently told the New Yorker that profits from counterfeit olive oil are “comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks.”

Given the stakes, it’s not surprising how much energy some organizations are putting into stopping this trade.

Profits from counterfeit olive oil are “comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks.”

In Switzerland, chemists at ETH Zürich recently found a way to tag and “proof” bottles of extra virgin olive oil using magnetic strands of synthetic DNA. That’s right: synthetic DNA. The tiny molecules can be used to asses the precise quantity of authentic olive oil in a given product.

“The method is equivalent to a label that cannot be removed,” said Robert Grass, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences at ETH Zurich, in a press release.

Specifically, the DNA is coded to reveal precise information about the provenance of an oil and its producer. Perhaps more impressively, the DNA is “fossilized” in a layer of silica to protect the information for up to two years. Because they are magnetized, samples can be easily removed and separated from the oil for reading, but the molecules cannot be removed in their entirety.

In all, these “synthetic fossils” would cost no more than $0.02 per liter. While that may not sound like much, for large manufacturers those pennies add up quickly. But then again, for the honest producers, what’s the economic cost of the counterfeit oils already on the market?

Hero image: Wikimedia Commons, "Josh Hallett" (CC BY 2.0)

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A L'Olivier Extra Virgin Olive Oil in Unique Mini Drum, 25.3 oz

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