Validating the composition of foods is a not just a matter of quality control but an issue of safety. Research is showing how nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy could lead to ways to do it quickly, accurately and cheaply.
The risks of food adulteration
Food adulteration – the deliberate or accidental contamination of foodstuffs with banned substances – is an age-old problem which continues to pose modern-world dangers. In 2008, there was a poisoning epidemic in China, in which 300,000 people were made ill and six infants died due to consuming milk products or infant formula containing the industrial substance melamine. The contamination was deliberate – as melamine is a nitrogen-rich chemical, it is indistinguishable from protein on traditional tests and can therefore artificially inflate crude protein content measurements.
The incident highlights the limitations of traditional food analysis strategies. A major factor is that they rely on targeted analysis, so only certain compounds are tested for. In order to detect unexpected and unknown compounds in food and contend with the issue of 21st century food adulteration, rapid and non-specific methods of analysis are needed.
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