What Are We Consuming? The Science Behind the Food We Eat

Agilent Technologies invites three specialists from different spheres within the global food industry to discuss the measures of safety, quality, and innovation that sustain and improve our food chain. 

The safety and quality of the food we consume is central to good health, a cleaner environment, and a flourishing economy. While we may not always consider the larger issues at play in the food industry, the reality is that farmers are under increasing pressure to produce crops in unhealthy environments, and consumer dietary choices are negatively impacting human health outcomes.

In its tenth podcast episode, Agilent takes a closer look at the science behind the food we eat and key moments within the food cycle which impact our meals every day. Three experts share insights into the dynamic nature of the food industry and their unique specialisms within the sector. In ways that may be unseen to the public eye, these experts are influential in shaping the food we eat on our plate, all the processes in between, and the future of global food sustainability.

Mary McBride, PhD., Associate Vice President, Applied Markets and Regulations at Agilent Technologies

Devin Peterson, PhD., Distinguished Professor of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences in Flavor Science, the Ohio State University

Mahaletchumy Arujanan, PhD., Global Coordinator of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), and Executive Director of the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC)

Improving and preserving food standards in consensus with AOAC International and other organizations

Determining food standards and complying with market regulation is critical to ensuring consumer confidence in the food we eat; specifically, that the food we consume is safe, as is the authenticity of the food, and the ingredients that we purchase. In this episode, Agilent’s Associate Vice President of Applied Markets and Regulations, Mary McBride, opened the discussion by touching on Agilent’s objective to preserve and improve global food standards to support its customers.

Mary explained that in order to meet food standards and regulations, brands rely on the results of standard test methods to facilitate global trade, and ensure the safety, quality and authenticity of raw materials, ingredients, and finished products. The process is crucial to protecting brand identity, and as a result, labs must perform tests according to these regulatory or standard test methods every step along the way of the food value chain. In addition to conducting existing standard test methods for regulatory compliance, companies must also be able to respond rapidly to changing regulations and develop entirely new testing methods to meet emerging threats if needed.

Using Agilent as an example, Mary notes that the company supports its customers in ensuring compliance in the food market in a variety of ways, which include monitoring for pending changes to existing regulations, working directly in customer’s own labs to develop, evaluating and implementing new regulatory compliant test methods, and also by partnering with standard development organizations such as the Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC), who have an exclusive focus on standards for food safety testing.

In fact, Agilent technical experts actively work with AOAC to develop standard test methods by writing or reviewing standards and supporting laboratory testing and evaluation. For example, currently, the team is collaborating with AOAC on the development of both targeted and non-targeted standards for authenticity testing in milk, honey, and olive oil.

Food standards and regulations play an imperative role in gaining consumer confidence.

When asked about what the future holds for the food safety industry, Mary expressed that while there are many exciting changes to come, the direction of the industry is still largely unknown. She went on to explain that COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on the industry, causing extreme disruptions in the food supply chain, which has resulted in food insecurity in a number of countries across the world. On the other hand, it has also led to a significant shift in consumer buying habits, with more consumers home-cooking and steering towards foods that are  healthier and more nutritious.

As a result, e-commerce is up by 70%, and so the industry has been quick to adopt new technologies such as Blockchain for tracing and tracking to suit the needs and demands of the new consumer. As these new changes come into effect, the food industry is responsible for ensuring that the necessary regulations and standards are implemented to ensure consumer safety and trust. Given how much the industry has transformed in such a short space of time, Mary highlighted that it will be interesting to see where it is headed next.

The characterization of chemical stimuli translating into food flavors

While the rise of technology has certainly shaken the global food market and its safety procedures, evolving consumer food tastes have always had an impact on shaping the market. Flavor is a key aspect that dictates our relationship with food; it determines our buying habits which can ultimately have an impact on our health.

Devin Peterson, a world leading researcher in the field of flavor at Ohio State University shed light on the partnerships being forged between academia, technology and food manufacture and provided an overview of the science behind flavor. At Ohio State University, Devin and his team aim to understand the compounds that contribute to flavor by analysing the molecules that underwrite different sensations such as smell, taste, tactile cues or temperature effects like heat or cooling.

Devin explained that we have three different sets of “chemical antennae” in the oral cavity, which respond to the molecules in the food we eat, ultimately creating patterns in our brains which we interpret as flavor. The three ways in which our brain interprets flavor are from smell or “olfaction”, “gustation” which comes from the tongue, and the third is “somatosensory”, which provides tactile sensations or temperature effects. To illustrate the impact of temperature effects Devin used the example of drinking scotch. Your mouth feels warm even though the temperature of the mouth does not increase in actual heat.

Hybrid of analytical and sensory approaches are used to study consumer food taste and how they react to different food.

To conduct research in this field, the team uses a hybrid of analytical and sensory approaches. Sensory approaches involve working with people to understand how they react to foods and what drives their specific perceptions.  Analytical methods are used to aid research in flavor discovery or to understand the compounds behind the perceptions. Devin notes that instruments that are commonly used for flavor discovery involve gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). For the volatile flavors that you may smell, GC is largely used, LC is used for non-volatile flavors that are tasted, and finally NMR is useful for structural elucidation and to analyse molecular interactions more closely.

A key objective of such research is to advance the understanding of significant current and future health challenges relating to healthy eating. “Poor dietary patterns are responsible for more deaths globally than any other factor, such as smoking or alcohol or sexually transmitted diseases” comments Devin, and so there is a tremendous opportunity in food analysis to understand the molecular underpinnings of what drives food choice, ultimately to promote healthy eating patterns.

An initiative directed by Devin at Ohio State University is The Flavor Research and Education Center (FREC), a partnership between academic researchers and industrial leaders, focused on advancing food innovation. The goal of the partnership is to bring together the food industry to uncover how to advance the development of healthier food options that better meet consumer expectations. In doing so, these organizations and institutions are enabling an overall healthier food system for the future.

The power of modern agribiotechnology innovations to enable food growth and sustainability

On a global scale, a better food system for the future must involve more than the promotion of healthier diets when one of the greatest challenges the world faces at present is world hunger and malnutrition. According to a recent report from the United Nations food agency, currently, 690 million people around the world go to sleep hungry, and this number is set to exceed 840 million by 2030.  Furthermore, two billion people are unable to access safe, nutritious, and sufficient food year-round.

Farmers in developing countries rely on crop produce for sustenance and trade, however increasingly the effects of climate change, and disease emergence have significantly impacted the growth of produce. Developing a food system that is sustainable, secure, and not short of supply is therefore integral to the future of global health and is a key priority for the industry.

In our discussion, Mahaletchumy Arujanan, the global coordinator for the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA) detailed innovations enabling global food growth and sustainability in developing countries. Providing an overview of the organization, Mahaletchumy explained that the ISAAA engages with all stakeholders involved in food production and focuses on advancing science, policy, regulation, commercialization, sustainable development and youth and female empowerment in agribiotechnology and biosciences.  ISAAA is also considered the authority for the data on commercialized biotech crops, and its global annual report is the most cited literature in crop biotechnology.

Explaining the problem at hand, Mahaletchumy highlighted that now more than ever we are being faced with global challenges such as climate change, new crop pests, ageing farmers, scarce resources like fresh water and fertile land, and now the first pandemic for most in our lifetime. For farmers, pandemics and epidemics in agriculture are a real threat, especially since it can cause their crops and animals to die out as seen from tragedies such as the Ringspot virus that destroyed Hawaiian papaya in 1992, the Nipah virus that killed the swine industry in Malaysia in 1998, and Citrus Greening that spread across Florida in 2012.

One of the solutions for these agricultural challenges lies in genetic modification and new breeding technologies, which have already shown to have a profound impact on sustaining farming efforts in developing countries. Mahaletchumy gives the example of Africa as a region that is benefitting from crop innovation, describing it as a future “breadbasket” as seen from the approval of biotech corn, cotton and cowpea, with the cultivation of more crops expected in the next few years. Adding to this, she mentions another tool said to revolutionise agriculture is CRISPR technology. To continue to sustain and support agricultural development in developing countries, other crops, fruits, and vegetables must be engineered when there are limitations with conventional methods, and CRISPR technology provides a window of opportunity for this.

Agricultural sector needs technological advancement to sustain farming efforts in developing countries.

Not only do these innovations provide social and economic benefits to farmers, but they also provide the option to sustainably farm given the reduced pesticide use, land saving and lesser greenhouse emissions. The future of agribiotechnology is certainly promising, and countries that adopt these technologies will benefit from a secure food supply as well as nutritional security with minimal environmental and health impacts.

The food industry is tasked with the enormous responsibility of ensuring that food meets safety standards, that it is of high nutritional value and that enough food is available for the population now and in the future. Across the industry, academia and food manufacturers are working to innovate the food supply chain to meet shifting consumer demands, but more importantly, to ensure better human health outcomes.

It is exciting to know that in every meal we eat, there is world-changing science in every mouthful.

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