In the food industry, a drive towards more innovative products such as a free-from, supplemented products, new ingredients and vegan alternatives is putting pressure on testing laboratories to handle a surge of new sample types with unknown constituents.
We spoke to Global Technical Manager for food chemistry, Timothy Lumb from ALS, a global leader in laboratory testing, about the challenges facing the testing industry today.
“The food industry is so fast moving, there's always something new. It comes down to the consumer in the end because consumers demand new products all the time, and that drives the whole industry,” explains Timothy Lumb.
Besides the drive from consumers, government regulations regarding healthy products also have an impact.
“There is a big drive towards improving the nutritional concept of food. We see an increase in testing around that, as governments move to reduce salt, reduce fats, increase the level of fibre. Obviously, that drives a lot of product development and product development drives a lot of testing.”
Product development gives rise to more unknown sample types
With so many new sample types coming in, analysts are faced with an increasing amount of unknown sample types making it harder to determine exactly what type of reference analysis tests to run. In the end, a lot of testing is based on estimation and this can lead to re-runs, delayed release of samples and in the worst-case scenario recalls. All of which have a significant impact in terms of time, cost, brand damage and unnecessary use of chemicals.
“There is this new product development where we really know nothing about them other than the general macro appearance and maybe some of the major ingredients. If it is a pastry product or bread, it's obvious that that's what it is. But in terms of what the values are going to be in there, we know absolutely nothing,” explains Timothy Lumb.
NIR brings value in the sample preparation phase
Integrating an indirect method such as near infrared (NIR) gives analysts an immediate indication of expected sample values, making it easier to decide which sample preparation procedure to use for the next step.
“NIR provides a quick look at what level of the analyte that's in there,” explains Timothy Lumb. “This saves us time, effort and potentially cost. And it certainly speeds up the whole process because it reduces the chance of any sort of rework if we get it wrong. Having that ability to scan everything by NIR first makes the process a lot more robust.”
Even when it comes to analysing samples of well-established products about which we already have a huge amount of information, NIR has definite benefits to offer. Timothy Lumb calls this due diligence work, using NIR to check that everything is as it should be and that the labels are still correct.
“Accuracy is absolutely critical when it comes to due diligence work. But apart from that, it's all about price, really, because there's no direct commercial benefit to the manufacturer or the retailer for doing it, it's all about brand protection and looking after themselves, making sure that it is correct.
A second layer of confidence
While NIR provides a lot of value in the sample preparation phase, other ways to benefit from rapid screening methods in the lab include internal quality control checks and as a second layer of confidence to avoid the risk of error associated with complex reference methods.
“Running a reference method introduces a huge amount of risk because we’re talking about quite complex methods with multiple stages. So, having another test method to be able to look at them together and check if they match up, reduces that risk to our clients, which ultimately reduces the risk to consumers. It is about ensuring that the results that we provide are as accurate as possible.” Timothy Lumb explains.
“Having that secondary check reduces the risk of us reporting something incorrectly. Even though, as any laboratory will tell you, we have processes in place to demonstrate the quality of every result we approve and release, there is always a certain level of risk. So, anything that reduces that level of risk is a good thing. And I know NIR is one of those things that we're using to reduce that level of risk.”
“You can do a lot more with NIR than I ever thought”
The key to success with NIR
Besides the fact that NIR is known as a method that is fast, easy to use and highly sustainable, another key benefit of NIR is consistent results.
“The real value you know, is that it's a very repeatable technique. You know, that if you're going to run that sample again and again and again, you’re going to get the same response every time,” says Timothy Lumb.
But before simply implementing NIR because it’s a brilliant new technique, you have to clarify what you want to use it for, Timothy Lumb advises.
“Don't just go for it, because it's a very good technique, but really clarify exactly what you want to do with it. First, because then you can tailor the calibrations to that need, which might reduce the amount of work. And also, you get a much cleaner calibration. My biggest learning is that you can do a lot more with NIR than I ever thought, if you can get enough data. That really is the key. Just having good data and enough of it.”