Natural Trace has dubbed its technology NaturalTag, a solution based on DNA tags obtained from dairy molecules to create markers which can be added into the food or beverage product to be tracked in order to create an unremoveable watermark for the product.
“The tags are added either in liquid or powder form to the product - say an expensive bottled iced tea made using very valuable tea leaves and very unique honey from specific geographies – and once this is added, the tags become a watermark for the tea which is tamper-proof as it has already become part of the tea,” Natural Trace Venture Builder CL Goh told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“So once the tags are applied, at any point within the food supply chain it will now be possible to detect and read back the watermark of the tea and its ingredients to identify it, and any [adulterated products trying to masquerade as this valuable product] will be able to be identified if they do not have this watermark.
“Given that NaturalTag needs to be added directly into the product, we have innovated this to be all-natural, non-GMO, and will have no impact on taste or quality of the product, a technology we have patented.”
Having the tags added directly into the product can solve food traceability issues that the industry still faces, as most of the technology still available at this time is located on external packaging, such as barcodes, QR codes, holograms and the like, leaving these more open and susceptible to both intentional and unintentional removal or damage.
“At this point we are not looking at NaturalTag as a means to completely replace traditional technology like the barcodes, hologram IDs and so on – the thinking is for this to complement that external tech, as it is the only one that can really be put into the food product itself,” said Goh.
“It is basically in a category of its own and with its advantages of being transparent, versatile, clean label and not affecting taste or texture of the very product it is tagging, it can be an enabler in so many potential food traceability applications.
“Importantly, it is also affordable such that it can be used alongside traditional technologies for that additional protection and verification that existing tech cannot provide.”
Natural Trace is currently running multiple proof-of-concept projects with various food and beverage products including plant-based meat, alcohol, coffee, palm oil, milk powder and more, with several of its partners being ‘big household brand names’ that believe in-product traceability is a definite asset.
“It is too early at this point to reveal our partner names or too much information on these POC projects, but I can say that what we are doing oes hand in hand with the recent trend over the last few years surrounding ESG, with these environment, social and corporate governance factors playing an increasing role in consumer decisions,” said Goh.
“So I think that that dovetails in with the current ongoing significant food supply chain challenges, as these will obviously force productivity to go up, and sometimes, the origin of food suffers as a result, which makes traceability all that much more important
“Certainly the companies that are responsible and aware of the importance of ESG are trying to differentiate themselves and show that they're also a business for good, and I think that is going to essentially support what Natural Trace is doing as well.”
Challenges and further applications
At this point in time, given the novelty of the technology one major challenge the company is still facing is that traceability and analysis still needs to be done in a laboratory, though Goh expects this will evolve in the future.
“The whole idea of NaturalTag came about because of the PCR testing that became so common all throughout COVID-19. And with everyone suddenly becoming aware of what PCR is when two years ago it was such a distant thing for most people,” he said.
“But during the pandemic this test of course became very common and very available, to so essentially bringing a sample to a lab to be tested became quick and convenient – and that is what NaturalTag is based on right now.
“But of course we do see that companies will want to have even quicker access to traceability data and consumers to have immediate access to provenance and food safety information, and we also see that the convergence of IoT devices is going to make that easily available.
“There are product roadmaps showing devices that could potentially be mounted on a mobile phone to do detections and so on – but that's still early days and for now, the way to read the watermark is really still to have the sample run in the lab.”
Goh added that although food is currently the primary focus, the firm sees much further applications for the tag including in the personal care and drug sectors.
“Our initial plan is to focus closely on food, but certainly there are very practical applications for NaturalTag in areas such as fragrance, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, sectors where branding and consumer trust is important,” he said.