Global food insecurity and uncertainty are becoming an increasing problem, with multiple issues arising from changing climate conditions in major agricultural areas, SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) impacted supply chains and geopolitical challenges.1
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One of the ways to combat such problems is to improve the efficiency of agricultural crops, ensure food quality remains high and prevent unwanted spoilage or loss due to contamination.
The analytical sciences offer a powerful suite of tools to address many of the challenges around the food we eat. From the development of ‘smart agriculture’ tools to improve crop yields and health, to optimizing farming practices and developing highly sensitive detection methods for trace contaminant identification and quantification, analytical chemistry is now a staple tool in the food science and agricultural industries.2
Analytical chemistry is so valuable for food science and agriculture is because of its ability to identify and quantify the chemical composition of food products. While this is far from a trivial task, as even relatively simple vegetables contain many different families of chemical species, the wealth of highly sensitive analytical chemistry methods available mean there are now suites of tools that can be used to profile the nutritional content of food and identify any unwanted contaminants.3
Standard analytical methods in food science include mass spectrometry and its hyphenated variants, including liquid and gas chromatography mass spectrometry (LC-MS/GC-MS) and spectroscopies such as infrared and Raman spectroscopy.
Spectroscopic methods are particularly valuable in food processing applications as they can be more easily integrated into process analytical technologies for online process monitoring and provide live feedback and control in processing plants.4
The Dangers of Food Contamination and Food Fraud
One of the most important applications of analytical methods in food science is food safety. Highly sensitive analytical methods are needed to ensure food is free of contaminants and that any food products for consumption are labeled correctly, e.g., gluten-free products are truly gluten-free.
Ensuring the highest standards of food safety is a significant aspect of public health.5 For instance, even relatively common food-borne pathogens can cause mortality. Food is also a potential vector for other disease-carriers, including viruses. As well as pathogens, another area of public health concern is chemical-based contaminants in foods. Such contaminants may include chemicals that are hazardous to human health directly, such as pesticides and many agricultural chemicals, or those with longer-term determinantal effects, such as carcinogens.
Not all food contamination is accidental, and there is a growing market for ‘economic adulteration’ of foods. This ‘food fraud’ ranges from misrepresentation of the origin of some of the ingredients in the food to the addition of extra ingredients to food. Food fraud poses a serious public health risk, and as such, significant amounts of legislation have been introduced to try and combat this issue.6
Whether food contamination occurs at source, from biosolids, soil, plant feeds or agricultural chemicals, during processing or from intentional tampering, the primary tools for identifying and quantifying food contaminants are analytical methods.
Some of the main methods for identifying food contaminants include UV-vis spectroscopy or colorimetric methods, chromatography, immunoassays, Raman spectroscopy and field-effect transistors.7 Mass spectrometry is also commonly used in combination with chromatography methods, particularly for non-targeted compound analysis.
Another challenge in food contamination detection is not just the chemical complexity of the food products themselves but also the number and type of contaminants that can be present. For this reason, non-targeted analysis is often preferred to screen for many possible contaminants, rather than highly specific tests looking for a single analyte.
To learn more about the latest developments in analytical technologies and methodologies in food science and agriculture, head to Pittcon, an international conference that spans all aspects of laboratory science and includes a trade show from instrument vendors.
On the subject of ‘Global Challenges in Chemical Analysis for Food Safety,’ Pittcon will host a panel discussion with speakers from the FDA, NIST, USDA and Maine Environmental and Occupational Health Program to look at current topics and challenges facing analytical methods as applied to food safety. For more details and how to register, please look here.
Focusing on ‘Non-Targeted Analysis for Food Safety,’ Pittcon will also host a session with a keynote speaker; details for this session can be found here. The keynote speaker for this session is Dr. Yelena Sapozhnikova. She is a Research Chemist at the Eastern Regional Research Center, Agricultural Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture in Wyndmoor, PA, with extensive expertise in developing novel methods for evaluating emerging contaminants in food products.
Dr. Saphozhnikova uses a variety of methods in her work, including GC-MS for the non-targeted screening of chemicals in a variety of different contamination sources.8 Find out more about these developments during her talk.
Pittcon offers a unique opportunity to network with instrument vendors and other researchers and technicians to see cutting-edge instrumentation and scientific advances.
To find out more about Pittcon, as well as details on how you can register, visit the homepage here. Information on the conference schedule and details of all speakers can be seen in the Technical Program.
References and Further Reading
- Baquedano, F., Christensen, C., Ajewole, K., & Beckman, J. (2012). International food security assessment, 2011-21. In International Food Security: Assessments and Projections. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/outlooks/99088/gfa31_summary.pdf?v=3853.7
- Mandrone, M., Chiocchio, I., Barbanti, L., Tomasi, P., Tacchini, M., & Poli, F. (2021). Metabolomic Study of Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) to Interpret Plant Behavior under Variable Field Conditions in View of Smart Agriculture Applications. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 69(3), 1132–1145. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jafc.0c06533
- Leonel, M., do Carmo, E. L., Fernandes, A. M., Soratto, R. P., Ebúrneo, J. A. M., Garcia, É. L., & dos Santos, T. P. R. (2017). Chemical composition of potato tubers: the effect of cultivars and growth conditions. Journal of Food Science and Technology, 54(8), 2372–2378. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13197-017-2677-6
- Jin, H., Lu, Q., Chen, X., Ding, H., Gao, H., & Jin, S. (2016). The use of Raman spectroscopy in food processes: A review. Applied Spectroscopy Reviews, 51(1), 12–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/05704928.2015.1087404
- Gizaw, Z. (2019). Public health risks related to food safety issues in the food market: A systematic literature review. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 24(1), 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12199-019-0825-5
- Manning, L. (2016). Food fraud: policy and food chain. Current Opinion in Food Science, 10(2), 16–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cofs.2016.07.001
- Rodriguez, R. S., O’Keefe, T. L., Froehlich, C., Lewis, R. E., Sheldon, T. R., & Haynes, C. L. (2021). Sensing Food Contaminants: Advances in Analytical Methods and Techniques. Analytical Chemistry, 93(1), 23–40. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.analchem.0c04357
- Sapozhnikova, Y. (2021). Non-targeted screening of chemicals migrating from paper-based food packaging by GC-Orbitrap mass spectrometry. Talanta, 226(January), 122120. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.talanta.2021.122120
Pittcon® is a registered trademark of The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, a Pennsylvania non-profit organization. Co-sponsored by the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh, Pittcon is the premier annual conference and exposition on laboratory science.
Proceeds from Pittcon fund science education and outreach at all levels, kindergarten through adult. Pittcon donates more than a million dollars a year to provide financial and administrative support for various science outreach activities including science equipment grants, research grants, scholarships and internships for students, awards to teachers and professors, and grants to public science centers, libraries and museums.
Visit pittcon.org for more information.
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