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Ensuring Food Quality with FTIR

This form of spectroscopy reveals the components in food and their sources

Mike May, PhD

Mike May is a freelance writer and editor living in Texas.

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Infrared spectroscopy provides a multipurpose tool for analyzing foods. This analytical technique can be used to determine the major and minor components in a food, their geographic origin, and much more. In particular, many of today’s food scientists use Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy. To explore some of these applications, Andrei A. Bunaciu, PhD, CEO of S.C. AAB_IR research S.R.L. in Romania, and Hassan Y. Aboul-Enein, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical and medicinal chemistry at the National Research Center in Cairo, teamed up to answer some key questions.

“In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the study and analysis of foods by IR spectroscopy, in principle due to the development of FTIR spectrometers, the availability of convenient attenuated total reflection [ATR], sample-handling accessories, and advances in multicomponent analysis techniques and chemometrics,” say Bunaciu and Aboul-Enein. “The most significant advantage is the ability to determine simultaneously several components in a food sample within one single scanning, that takes about a minute.”

Despite the benefits of FTIR in food science, one team of scientists reported that IR in general is a “currently underexploited technique in the field, whose use should be stimulated for rapid and accurate determinations both in academic and industrial contexts.”

Benefits and applications

With FTIR spectroscopy, food scientists achieve similar results to chemical techniques and gain several benefits. “Because IR analysis is a physical, nondestructive method, no reagents are required and no chemical waste is produced,” Bunaciu and Aboul-Enein note. In addition, FTIR can easily detect adulteration in a wide range of food products.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the study and analysis of food by IR spectroscopy, in principle due to the development of FTIR spectrometers.

Recently, Bunaciu and Aboul-Enein applied FTIR to sunflower oils. When asked about the purpose of this work, they point out: “Edible oils are susceptible to adulteration due to chronic shortages and price fluctuation, and this is an important issue because adulteration can have detrimental effects on consumers’ health.” Using ATR-FTIR spectroscopy, these scientists identified other edible oils, including rapeseed and soybean, that had been used in the adulteration of sunflower oils. Scientists have applied FTIR spectroscopy to the adulteration of other foods, such as maple syrup.

FTIR methods can also assess the stability of a food. As one example, Bunaciu and Aboul-Enein used ATR-FTIR to study lard. Based on this work, the scientists said this technique served as “an effective analytical tool for evaluating the oxidative stability of lard and for providing information on the oxidation degree of a sample in a simple, fast, and accurate way to monitor the oxidation process of lard samples during heating.”

Keeping foods safe

Although the average consumer won’t notice that oil advertised as coming from sunflowers also contains oil from rapeseeds, contamination is another story. That contamination can come from bacteria, viruses, poisonous substances, parasites, or pollutants. According to Bunaciu and Aboul-Enein, those contaminants in foods “cause over 200 illnesses, including serious infectious disorders and even cancer.”

As the world’s population continues to grow, ensuring food security gets more complicated. As Bunaciu and Aboul-Enein state, “This growth is creating a larger and more intricate food chain.” Consequently, food scientists need fast and effective analytical techniques like FTIR spectroscopy to test large volumes and wide varieties of foods. As Bunaciu and Aboul-Enein emphasize: “Food safety is a top public-health concern for the food processing and packaging sectors, distributors, retailers, and consumers.”