Good Thinking

Could candy sprinkles thwart pharmaceutical counterfeiters?

Could candy sprinkles thwart p...
Sprinkle-coated chocolates (left) were used to test the CandyCode concept, although Tylenol caplets (right) also received the sprinkle-coating treatment
Sprinkle-coated chocolates (left) were used to test the concept, although Tylenol tablets (right) also received the sprinkle-coating treatment
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Sprinkle-coated chocolates (left) were used to test the CandyCode concept, although Tylenol caplets (right) also received the sprinkle-coating treatment
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Sprinkle-coated chocolates (left) were used to test the concept, although Tylenol tablets (right) also received the sprinkle-coating treatment

Candy sprinkles may make desserts more interesting, but an American scientist has developed what could be a much more valuable use for them. His CandyCode system might one day be utilized to confirm that supposedly authentic pills aren't actually counterfeits.

While we have heard of a number of anti-counterfeiting measures for pharmaceuticals, many of the proposed technologies have involved fairly complex processes, some of which actually require the medication to be altered. The University of California, Riverside's Prof. William Grover set out to develop something much simpler yet just as effective – CandyCode is the result.

The system involves applying a food-grade adhesive to individual pills, then coating those pills with a random assortment of multi-colored nonpareils (aka sprinkles or hundreds and thousands). Each pill is then photographed, and its image data is stored in a database.

When a consumer subsequently wants to check that their medication is the real deal, they start by using their smartphone to take a picture of one of the pills. They then access an online portal, where that photo is compared to the image data on the drug company's server. If a match for the pill's specific color combination and pattern of sprinkles is found, then the consumer is told that the pill is authentic – if no match is found, though, they're warned that it's likely counterfeit.

Of course, it sounds like taking the initial photos would be a lot of work, and that storage of them would require a great deal of memory. However, Grover points out that many pharmaceutical factories already utilize quality control systems in which each pill is imaged as it goes past on a conveyor belt.

Additionally, he states that if each pill's sprinkle pattern was stored as a set of text-based strings – as opposed to a raw photo file – then it would theoretically be possible for a company to produce 41 million pills for each person on earth, yet still be able to identify each one of those pills.

In a test of the concept, Grover photographed a total of 120 sprinkle-coated chocolate candies, in groups of 12. There was an average of 92 sprinkles on each candy, in a total of eight randomly mixed colors.

The image information was stored in a database, wherein each candy's sprinkle pattern was converted into text strings. Even after the candies had been banged around a bit, to simulate the rigours of shipping and handling, it was found that subsequently taken photos of them could be easily matched to the strings in the database.

What's more, when experimenting with coating Tylenol pills with the sprinkles, Grover discovered an added bonus of the CandyCode system.

"Anecdotally, I found that CandyCoded caplets were more pleasant to swallow than plain caplets, confirming Mary Poppins’ classic observation about the relationship between sugar and medicine," he said.

An open-access paper on the research was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Source: University of California, Riverside

5 comments
5 comments
Rusty Harris
Sadly, if/when small children find one of these, either by accident from parents not keeping them out of reach,
they will be more likely to eat one, because of the sprinkles.
Aross
Not to mention sugar and diabetics????
Marco McClean
Why not just make the /candy/ out of drugs, and then bar-print what drug it is? Or print pictures on the candy drugs, like Mickey Mouse or Cheech Wizard or curlicues or a happy sun-face. I had a toy doctor kit when I was little, with a bottle of pills in it. They weren't very good, but that's not important. Candy technology has improved in sixty years. They could be almond roca, or wonderful raisin-flavored milk chocolate or, for people who like coconut candy, coconut. I don't, but millions of people do.
garyddavis
I agree sprinkles are a terrible idea as they will encourage children to ingest pills. There is also serious foubt about the technical feasibility as the database grows to millions, then billions of capsule encodings and an individual user then attempts to verify a particular capsule. The delay in searching that many records could cause the user to time out (and I mean give up and close the app). Also the likelihood of false matched patterns increases over time. This is a bad idea all around.
ljaques
Sadly, if/when small children find 50 of these, either by accident from parents not keeping them out of reach,
they will be more likely to eat ALL 50 of them, because of the sprinkles.
(fixed it for ya, Rusty)