How can we ensure smart, sustainable, and safe food manufacturing? A roundup from the SFN+ fifth Annual Conference on 3rd and 4th July 2023
Safety is a critical issue for food systems, both to safeguard public health and to give consumers confidence in healthy, sustainable food products. As the food landscape evolves, introducing novel ways to produce, process, and retail foods, this presents a constant stream of new food safety challenges. At the SFN+ fifth Annual Conference, a range of projects supported by the network demonstrated how they are applying cutting-edge techniques to achieve impact in this area.
Keynote talk: Preventing miscarriages of justice in the UK Official Food Control System, Selvarani Elahi MBE, UK Deputy Government Chemist, National Laboratories & Science, LGC Group.
We may take it for granted that our food is generally safe to eat, but many people work behind the scenes to ensure this. In the keynote talk for the session, Selvarani Elahi introduced the role of the UK Government Chemist (GC), a statutory function that has existed since 1875; the GC uses authoritative measurement procedures coupled with experienced interpretative skills to act as a fair and independent arbiter to resolve disputes, relating mainly to food and agriculture samples, between the Government and food industry. In doing so, the GC protects consumers, provides a route of technical appeal for businesses and contributes to regulatory enforcement in sectors where chemical and bio-measurements are important. The GC also provided independent expert advice on analytical science implications for policy, standards and regulations to HM Government and other stakeholders. The variety of cases encountered can be enormous and can range from pesticides and allergens, to authenticity and illegal dyes.
A key activity of the GC is to undertake regular horizon-scanning activities, to identify and prepare for emerging food safety issues, or where new legislation may lead to food business operators and local authorities requiring advice or support. One of the outputs of GC horizon scanning activities is a quarterly open access publication of Food and Feed Law: legislation reviews.
“A highly topical issue is the continuing prevalence of food allergens in ‘developed countries’” says Selvarani. “The prevalence of peanut allergy alone has doubled in children in Western countries over the past 10 years, and no one really know why. Food allergens have a huge impact on the quality of life of sufferers and can be fatal for some people if the required care is not taken. The GC works with stakeholders to improve the science of food allergen detection, and to develop training / guidance on risk assessments for food allergens.”
Periodically, the GC is asked to act as a referee in cases involving food allergens; one such case involved the alleged deliberate contamination of a ‘nut-free’ food factory with peanuts by an employee in an act of revenge. Although, copious amounts of peanut protein were detected on the overalls submitted for analysis, a prosecution could not be secured because of deficiencies in the way the samples were taken. The clean-up operation cost the food business over £1M and if the crime had gone undetected, the contaminated food would have been potentially fatal for peanut allergen sufferers.” says Selvarani.
“Our mission is ‘Science for a Safer World’; although we have access to more advanced techniques now compared to when the Laboratory of the Government Chemist was created in 1842, our purpose is still the same: to help protect consumers in a changing world.”
For further information on the work of the Government Chemist, read the 2022 Annual Review.
Understanding the role of additives in chocolate manufacture: linking molecular interactions to bulk rheology by Dr Tseden Taddese, Hartree Centre, Science and Technology Facilities Council.
Rheology modifiers are commonly used in the food industry to improve the flow and smoothness of products, but how they work at the molecular level is poorly understood. With chocolate as an exemplar, this project investigated whether molecular dynamics simulations could reveal how rheology modifiers work at the nanoscale to reduce friction. Using a discrete element modelling approach and the High-Performance Computing (HPC) capabilities at STFC Hartree, Tseden and her colleagues were able to estimate the friction coefficient between cocoa butter and sugar, and model how this changed with the addition of rheology modifiers such as lecithin. A key insight was that rheology modifiers may work by sticking to and coating the rough surfaces of sugar particles.
“These computational simulations have given us a deeper understanding and could act as a screening method to help select and develop new rheological modifiers.” Dr Tseden Taddese.
From nutrition to flavour: novel food and food ingredients from microalgae, by Dr Yixing Sui , The University of Greenwich.
Microalgae could provide nutritious and sustainable novel food products, but the distinct flavour and odour of green varieties can be challenging for consumers. This project investigated how adding an orange-coloured microalga called Dunaliella salina affected the smell and taste of mayonnaise, bread, and pasta. Using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GCMS), they demonstrated that the profile of volatile compounds and nutrient content varied significantly depending on the cooking process. The team also identified a specific compound which delivered an intensely sweet, floral odour and fruity taste: a promising candidate for further analysis.
“Dunaliella salina is a great candidate for novel food products, since the reduced chlorophyll content minimises off-putting smells, but it is also rich in beta-carotene, making it highly nutritious.” Dr Yixing Sui.
Identifying high yield protein extraction from seaweed via understanding structure-function relationship of cell wall, by Dr Parag Acharya, University of Greenwich
Seaweed could help us meet the rising demand for protein, without the significant greenhouse gas emissions and land use associated with livestock farming. A major challenge, however, is that there is currently no effective method to extract protein from seaweed. By developing a better understanding of the structure of seaweed cell walls, this project aims to develop low-emission technologies for optimal protein extraction. So far, they have identified the key points during current extraction methods where most protein loss occurs, and shown that adding a ‘pre-extraction grinding’ process could help increase extraction efficiency by reducing particle sizes.
“Maximising the potential of seaweed in food markets addresses multiple sustainable development goals, including sustainable agriculture, sustainable production and consumption, and climate action.” Dr Parag Acharya
Developing a new testing methodology for sugar syrup adulteration detection in honey, by Dr Maria Anastasiadi and Ms Mennatullah Shehata, Cranfield University
Honey is prized for its flavour and nutritional qualities, but the market is currently undermined by products suspected of being adulterated with cheap sugar syrups from plant sources such as sugar cane, maize, rice, and sugar beet. Because there is no single definitive method for verifying honey authenticity, this project is investigating two techniques in tandem to develop a new testing methodology.
The first method involves testing honey samples against DNA barcodes for the plant species used to make sugar syrups. To test this, the team sourced genuine honey from UK beekeepers and prepared samples spiked with different levels of syrups from rice, corn, or sugar beet. The preliminary results indicate that the method can effectively detect adulterated samples even at a concentration of 1% syrup.
The second approach uses Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS), which has the advantage of being non-invasive, so that honey jars do not even have to be opened. The team used their panel of pure and adulterated honey samples to obtain SORS measurements, which were then applied to train a machine learning model. When tested on novel samples, the model detected adulterated samples with an accuracy of 90%, and could detect concentrations of exogenous sugars as low as 20%.
“Our next stage is to engage with stakeholders such as the Food Standards Agency, DEFRA, bee-keepers and the honey industry to establish a UK Honey Authenticity Database.” Ms Mennatullah Shehata
“Both SORs and DNA barcoding are promising screening methods for honey authenticity. Coupling them together has great potential for a commercial tool that can increase consumer confidence.” Dr Maria Anastasiadi
Establishing a rapid testing system for contaminant detection in African honey as means of quality control and environmental monitoring, by Mr Bronson Eran’ogwa, The Source Plus
Traces of pesticides and contaminants in African honey products are a human health risk and limit access to Western markets. This project is investigating whether Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS) could provide a rapid and cost-effective detection method. The method has been optimised in solution on different neonicotinoid pesticides such as thiamethoxam, achieving a Limit of Detection (LOD) of 0.1ppm. In the future we aim to optimise the method in African honey samples. Alongside this, they are using STFC Hartree Centre’s HPC facilities to develop a mathematical model which combines various data sources (including environmental variables and pesticide monitoring reports) to identify early indicators of honey contamination.
“Developing the African honey industry can unlock economic potential, generate income for farmers, and create employment opportunities. Access to Western markets is highly valuable, and addressing contamination issues is essential to meet their stringent import requirements.” Mr Bronson Eran’ogwa
Investigation into the nutritional and health benefits of cooked rice through traditional soaking process, by Showti Raheel Naser, Teesside University
Overnight soaking is a traditional preserving method for rice in South Asian countries, but it may also deliver unique health benefits that could combat malnutrition. Through a wide range of experimental techniques, including mass spectrometry and DNA sequencing, this project has demonstrated that overnight-soaked rice has significantly higher concentrations of certain micronutrients (such as iron and zinc) and firmicutes (beneficial gut bacteria), compared with non-soaked rice. The soaked rice also caused a lower spike in blood glucose levels when tested on non-diabetic people. In future work, the team intends to look further into the microbial colonies present in the soaked rice at species level and carry out structural analysis of soaked rice using advanced scanning electron microscopy.
“Better understanding of this cheap fermented rice could play an important role in health nutrition, particularly in rural villages where there is limited dietary diversity and rice is the main staple food.” Showti Raheel Naser
The potential of brown rice for improving health: Investigating the bioaccessibility of its key constituents, and barriers and drivers to consumption, by Dr Manoj Menon [at ARRNeT] , The University of Sheffield
Brown rice may be more nutritious than white, but it remains far less popular with consumers. This project is taking a broad approach to investigate the barriers against brown rice consumption, from elemental mapping of rice grains to investigating consumer perceptions. Using static digestion protocols that simulate the human digestion system, this will determine the bioavailability of both beneficial micronutrients and potential contaminants (such as arsenic). This will be combined with fine-scale elemental mapping carried out at the Diamond Light Source facility in Harwell. Alongside this, the team will carry out interviews with diabetic patients to understand the place of brown rice in their diet and barriers to consumption.
“The work will provide shed light into the real benefits and risks of consuming brown rice, to make informed decisions for consumers, its potential to address malnutrition, and opportunities to address the barriers associated with its popularity” Dr Manoj Menon
September 2022 - Caroline Wood, Freelance Science Writer