Food analytics of the future: How authentic and safe are our foodstuffs?

Authenticity verification continues to be an important topic in the food industry. As consumers become more aware of healthy eating habits, and consequently demands for organic produce and food from sustainable regional agriculture and organic farming increase, provenance analysis, alongside pesticide, herbicide and hormone analysis, continues to gain in importance. For with increasing market potential, the danger of food adulterations and fraud in this segment likewise increases.

In the customers’ interest, counterfeiting of foodstuffs, so-called food fraud, is indeed prohibited, but the practice of official surveillance shows the opposite. Incorrectly made declarations regarding geographical origin, differentiation of “organic” versus “conventional”, as well as “non-genetically engineered” versus “genetically modified”, are omnipresent. Mixing with cheaper ingredients such as syrup and fat, dilution and cutting of expensive foods such as oils and wines, or incorrect variety information, for example in cereals, and prohibited admixtures such as dyes, flavorings and other additives contribute significantly to profit maximization. Even in case of crop failure caused by extreme weather conditions, ingenuity in food fraud knows no bounds, as the following example shows. After seventy percent of the hazelnut shoots in the main growing region in Turkey died off 2017 due to the weather, hazelnuts and hazelnut products adulterated with other kinds of nuts, such as peanuts, showed up on the market.

A man demonstrates laboratory equipment to a woman next to him, in front of whom are two containers with green and orange liquid in which measuring instruments are attached
© Messe München GmbH
Food analytics of the future

Although the detection capabilities in foodstuff analytics are constantly being optimized in order to clearly identify impurities, illegal additives, or allergens in the target as well as in the non-target area, yet today professional food counterfeiters are often at the same technical level as the official surveillance is, and hence highly publicized scandals keep on occurring. This applies to organic eggs, organic vegetables, and organic fruits, as it does to special honeys, to milk, regional meat products, fish, and seafood from certain fishing zones or wines from special producing areas, as well as to spices, vegan and vegetarian or gluten- and lactose-free products. In the interest of consumer protection and for avoidance of such food scandals, declarations must be clearly verifiable. High-performance analytical systems and future-proof detection methods for verification of origin and authenticity, as they were exhibited at the analytica 2018 in Munich, are essential here. The goal must be to expose any adulteration and fraud in the fields of food, drink, and food-contact materials. Given a total volume of EUR 230 million of counterfeited food products confiscated by Europol-Interpol, the issue is becoming more relevant from an economic perspective.

Ultimately, the information provided on food and beverage packagings must match the contents and additives. These must not pose any health risks for the consumer. The consumer must not be deceived in his or her purchase decision. Misleading information and inaccurate indications of certain effects are prohibited, as are unauthorized additives.

At the analytica trade fair, a man in a suit pours a white powder into an analyzer and demonstrates the function of the device to two visitors.
© Messe München GmbH
Food analytics of the future

In food production, incoming goods controls of the raw materials and legally compliant quality control are prerequisites for food safety. Against this background, compliance with existing maximum residue levels for plant protection products and pesticides, mycotoxins and microorganisms, but also for veterinary medicinal products and heavy metals or dioxins, is being monitored. More than 1000 active substances are used in crop protection worldwide. In pesticide analytics, multicomponent methods are required, in particular for non-target screening. Here, microplasmas as an alternative to electrospray ionization open up new detection potentials in LC/MS coupling. The quantitatively most important active ingredient of herbicides, glyphosate, continues to be the subject of much criticism from the perspectives of the public and science due to its health hazards and plant resistance.

Extreme rainfall, which can be ascribed to climate change, leads to increased pest and mold infestation. Here, the actual hazard potentials often come not only from the plant pathogens but also from the toxic metabolites formed. The number of foodstuffs contaminated with mycotoxins is increasing rapidly. Globally, the risk from mycotoxins such as the carcinogenic aflatoxins to health and economy is considered significant. Against this background, the development of powerful analytical methods capable of identifying previously unknown metabolites and toxins is becoming increasingly important. Mass spectrometry methods, such as the LC/MS/MS couplings underlying metabolomics technologies, are used to detect bacterial and fungal metabolites and mycotoxins in order to be able to quantify the burden from mold toxins. Harvested products such as corn, rapeseed, soybeans, vegetables, nuts, coffee beans or tea plants and foodstuffs made from them are particularly affected.

In our society, the focus is on healthy nutrition. This increases the demand for functional foods and nutritional supplements. Pre- and probiotics as well as nutraceuticals are becoming increasingly popular. Secondary plant agents and functional ingredients are already being used in a targeted manner for specific dietetic nutritional models in high-performance sports, in allergies and in certain neoplastic and metabolic diseases, as well as for prophylaxis and prevention of atherosclerosis. The market for gluten- and lactose-free products is growing steadily, and with it the number of adulterants, so that the requirements in the EU are becoming stricter. Future-proof food analytics is of central importance, so that limit values can be met and risk potentials excluded.

In order to be able to unambiguously identify biological identity, geographic origin, and specific factors of production in foods, reference-based acquisition of molecular and sub-molecular fingerprints is required. Here it is expedient to combine a plurality of technologies having maximum resolution. So-called omics technologies such as genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, and isotopolomics provide a high-resolution image of the sample with maximum information content. Coupled chromatographic and spectrometric analysis methods as well as sequencing and next-generation sequencing procedures define modern food analytics today. Here, multidimensional data acquisition presents raw data processing and meaningful evaluation with special challenges. Constant reference check, chemometric fundamentals, and new developments in the fields of software and bioinformatics have become important for data management in food analytics as well. The need for archiving of large volumes of data makes development of databases and their integration into the processes necessary.

Despite all this complexity, routine analysis methods are expected to become both easier and cheaper for users. Analysis simplification can be made possible from food targeting up to food sensing in terms of single-marker detection. The goal is to quickly and cost-effectively obtain quantifiable results using barcoding and simple ready-to-use tests that are comparable to those from medical diagnostics and can be routinely used by staff after a short familiarization period. Looking ahead, such easy-to-use test systems could become a reality for consumers in the fields of home testing and point-of-care testing as well.

From sampling through analysis to evaluation and storage in databases, the analytica covers the entire spectrum of food analytics. High-tech developments, method optimizations, and routine applications are presented by well-known experts at the Live Lab, at the exhibition and at the conference.

Find out about the latest industry trends at the analytica, and learn on-site about the food laboratory of the future!