A screen of 28 commercially available products labelled as 100% argan oil found four that were not pure argan, which the scientists say strongly indicates adulteration with other oils. With demand for argan oil soaring, they say this new method can help protect consumers from fraud, and support honest producers and suppliers.
Much like the omega-3 oil authentication company Orivo, the researchers use a benchtop NMR spectrometer to measure the profile of different mono-unsaturated (MUFA), poly-unsaturated (PUFA) and saturated fatty acids (SFAs).
Through a collaboration with the Centre National de l’Energie des Sciences et des Techniques Nucléaires (CNESTEN) in Rabat, Morocco, the researchers obtained samples of argan oil with known provenance. Samples came from different regions and were taken at different times, to allow the researchers to get a view of the natural variation in the fatty acid profiles.
Profiled by SFA, PUFA & MUFA% 100% argan oil can be differentiated from mixtures.
Samples of argan oil deliberately mixed with sunflower oil at different ratios were also tested, and these could be distinguished from 100% argan oil. The researchers also tested a range of different vegetable oils.
Most could be distinguished, but some, for example bran oil, looked very similar based on their MUFA, PUFA and SFA profiles.
Whilst these compounds make up the major part by weight of these oils, there are a range of other minor compounds present including phenolics, tocopherols, and free fatty acids.
Using bespoke computational techniques to incorporate this information from the whole spectrum allowed them to identify 15 different types of oil as different to argan oil.
The test only takes five minutes and requires no sample preparation or solvents. It doesn’t need to be run in a laboratory and requires no particular expertise to perform, making it suitable for in situ testing.
Argan oil market
The plant oil, which is regularly used in cosmetics and health products, is produced from the kernels of the argan tree in Morocco. Rich in fatty acids and antioxidants, argan oil is often used in skincare as an anti-aging product.
Scientific validation of its health claims is patchy, but like olive oil it can be a key component of a healthy Mediterranean style diet. It is rich in fatty acids, polyphenols and other components that have been linked to reductions in chronic health conditions.
More recently, there has been an explosion in demand driven by the cosmetics industry, keen to include it as an ingredient in hand creams, haircare products and cosmetics.
Mechanical presses have replaced hand extraction, but the trees themselves are slow growing, so demand remains high, as does the price. The market is estimated to reach over $500 million by 2027, so it’s no wonder it’s known colloquially as Moroccan liquid gold.
All of this makes argan oil an attractive target for fraudsters who can substitute in cheap vegetable oils for argan oil, which costs around $30 per litre. Because it is used as an ingredient in cosmetics, the consumer, and even the manufacturer, may not notice the difference. This is where Dr Kate Kemsley and her team from the Quadram Institute have stepped in. Working with Oxford Instruments, they have developed a new way of authenticating argan oil, that is quick, high throughput and robust.