Tech firm's plant-based scanner works to a tea

Local start-up teapasar has unveiled a portable scanner which can analyse and verify plant-based products. PHOTO: LEE QING PING

SINGAPORE - Local start-up teapasar has devised a faster and more economic way to authenticate and identify plant-based food and drink.

The food-tech company's ProfilePrint portable scanner was unveiled on Friday (July 19) at the Singapore Tea Festival at Jewel Changi Airport.

The scanner can analyse and verify any plant-based product although the firm is now focusing on tea - a product that is prone to counterfeit varieties and other scams.

It scans tea and determines if it is authentic or if it has been tampered with. It also pinpoints the exact geographical region where the tea was harvested.

Teapasar co-founder and executive director Alan Lai said: "The current system of protecting food authenticity relies a lot on paperwork, labelling and packaging. But paperwork can be easily manipulated.

"We go down to the molecular level and let the science and data verify instead."

The ProfilePrint technology was developed in collaboration with the National University of Singapore Food Science and Technology programme and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

The device unveiled on Friday is a commercial rendition that is faster and cheaper than an initial version launched last year.

Teapasar places the cost at "a few thousand dollars" but a figure has not been confirmed yet.

Three tea companies - from Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Japan - are already working with teapasar in customising the scanner for their own needs or obtaining proof of concepts.

The scanner is simple and quick to use. A small sample of tea leaves is put into the machine, which then analyses the molecular properties which make up its unique "tea fingerprint".

This fingerprint is then run through teapasar's database of thousands of tea profiles to find a match. Any deviation from the authentic tea's profile can be singled out and examined, and so the tea's adulteration can be traced.

All this can be done in seconds without breaking down the tea leaf sample, which saves long periods of laboratory testing.

The tea market has long been riddled with counterfeits and adulterated tea, which pose health risks and affect market prices.

A recent high-profile scandal centred on a private Indian company that had 40 tonnes of adulterated tea seized from its factory last month.

And in 2017, the authorities found a Taiwanese tea farmer who imported tea from Vietnam, mixed it with a Taiwan-produced variety and sold it as Lugu Dong Ting oolong tea, a popular Taiwanese drink, at an inflated price.

Tea drinker Y. Li, 23, says she would not mind inauthentic tea if she did not pay a high price for it, but added: "If I bought it from a speciality shop and it cost quite a bit then I would consider it unethical."

She noted that counterfeit teas would never substitute for the real thing, especially if she was shopping for teas with "a very specific taste" such as Taiwanese Alishan, "which must be grown in a specific manner".

"There's no guarantee that more expensive tea means it's authentic."

The tea festival is now in its third year and the second that is being organised by teapasar. It ends on Sunday.

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