Food scarcity, food safety, food adulteration, and food insecurity are significant problems globally. Add in climate change, land use patterns, and an ever-increasing population, and the food industry is continuously challenged to optimize its production processes, guaranteeing quality products that can satisfy the needs of consumers while keeping its activities profitable. Food industry improvements mainly focus on optimization, reducing processing times, minimizing waste generation, and achieving greater product standardization.

Material characterization solutions for the food sector 

A thorough understanding of food properties at every stage of the food production chain is essential for the efficient production of safe food. Analyzing various food properties can help achieve that. In many cases, spectroscopy -the analysis of interactions between electromagnetic radiation and matter- offers a solution. It can provide information about properties like molecular composition, structure, dynamics, and interactions. Food production often begins in the soil because it is important to understand and monitor soil nutrient levels to grow our crops and feed the livestock that produces our milk and meat.

The versatility of reflectance spectroscopy

From assessing soil fertility to analyzing crop nutrients, reflectance spectroscopy offers a versatile and precise way to extract important information from soils and crops. One can use near-infrared (NIR) spectrometers such as the ASD FieldSpec® 4 range, to precisely, rapidly, and non-destructively measure a wide range of materials, with little to no sample preparation, and can assess multiple constituents in a single scan. Fast and accurate in situ spectral field reflectance measurements enable nearly real-time, lab-quality material analysis in the field. It can help us determine when to harvest our food, via measurement of moisture content and other characteristics in vines, plants, fruits, and vegetables.

Post-production, NIR spectra collected using the ASD LabSpec full-range spectrometer with a contact probe, can be used to determine raw ingredient characteristics like bread and cake flour properties of the protein (ds), softness (avg.), volume (avg.), and moisture (%).1 Similarly, collected NIR spectra of protein-rich foods, such as fish and meat, can be analyzed and used to create chemometric models (multivariate analysis). This enables the determination of quality attributes such as calories, moisture, collagen, and fat.2

Soil applications
  • Total carbon levels
  • Carbonate levels
  • Soil mineralogy
  • Erosion
Crop applications
  • Stress level analysis
  • Nitrogen status
  • Water status
  • Invasive species
Examples of constituents
  • Moisture
  • Total carbon/inorganic carbon
  • Total nitrogen/mineralized nitrogen
  • Clay/silt/sand
  • Soil organic matter
  • Cation-exchange capacity (CEC)
  • pH

Monitoring nutrient, mineral and trace elements in food

Process and quality control are essential for the efficient production of safe food. One can easily measure elemental concentrations of nutrients and toxic metals of interest by X-ray fluorescence (XRF). It is an accurate, cost-effective, and automatable technology. Malvern Panalytical’s Epsilon 1, a benchtop energy-dispersive XRF spectrometer, is fully compliant with international food industry standards. It can, for example, be used for easy quantification of the most commonly controlled elements in milk powder like potassium, calcium, iron, and zinc. Or one could use it for screening a contaminant such as lead in wheat noodles.3

Benchmarking food for behavior

For the determination of flow properties, texture, stability, and microstructural characteristics of food products, rheology (the study of flow and deformation of materials under applied forces) is applied in food acceptability, food processing, and food handling. The Kinexus range of rheometry instruments from NETZSCH Analyzing & Testing can measure:

  • Processability – pumping, mixing, extrusion and spraying
  • Storage stability – yield stress, viscoelasticity
  • Gelation time/rebuild time
  • Thermal stability – spreadability, freeze-thaw properties
  • Cooking characteristics – viscoelasticity
  • Mouthfeel – squeeze flow and pull off.

The mouthfeel of chocolate, for example, depends not only on the composition of the fat phase in the chocolate. It also depends on the size of the cocoa, milk, and sugar particles suspended in the fat.4

The particle size of different types of
chocolate made by one manufacturer

Laser diffraction instruments, such as the Mastersizer 3000, can be used either in a laboratory setting or beside product lines to determine particle size at different stages in the manufacturing process.

Sugar-coated chocolate that’s about to be measured by X-ray diffraction

Taste and texture – it’s in the structure

The crystal structure of the various components of chocolate is another factor that strongly affects the taste and texture of the final product.5 X-ray diffraction (XRD) provides structural information about crystalline fats, helping us to optimize the production process for chocolate. Instruments such as Aeris or Empyrean can deliver structural information for sugar coatings on chocolate – an essential element in the melting behavior of sugar-coated chocolate.

The future of fat?

Post consumption, food scientists are actively researching fats and their fate when we eat them, as well as how they affect our health and well-being. The food industry is developing foods that are sources of ‘good’ fats (for example, eggs rich in omega-3 fatty acids).

Food science is also developing lipids as a ‘delivery system’ for fat-soluble (lipophilic) compounds such as vitamins, nutraceuticals, and nutrients that can act as ‘functional foods’ to improve our health.6 Isothermal Titration Calorimetry (ITC) can be used to study the factors that influence reactions involving lipids, proteins, or carbohydrates that play an important role in the digestion of food. Results obtained with Malvern Panalytical’s MicroCal instruments may facilitate the design and development of functional food products with improved bioavailability of lipophilic compounds.6

Read more

1) Bread and Cake Flour Properties Modeled using LabSpec 4
2) NIR and Proteins
3) Screening for lead contamination in wheat noodles
4) Understanding the production and perception of chocolate through particle size analysis
5) Exploring the polymorphic structures in Milk Chocolate, Dark Chocolate, and Cocoa Butter
6) What I wish everyone knew about Isothermal Titration Calorimetry