Friday, April 29, 2011

What is Metabolomics?

Metabolomics Part 2:

Shelf-Life, Tracking, Sourcing & Purity

A look at how metabolomics can be used as a tool in the future of food quality improvements.

A continuation of a three part series, this second article will delve into cases for the use of metabolomics, a technology used to detect small molecules such as amino acids, organic acids, sugars, volatile metabolites and secondary metabolites such as alkaloids, phenolic components and also pigments such as carotenoids and anthocyanins present in food and food ingredients.

Case 1: Metabolomics and Shelf-Life Prediction

Reliable shelf-life determination and labeling is hugely important but is also hugely difficult. Too short times means losing potential business and increased wastage while too long can result in risking retailer trust and consumer preference in the long term. Erring on the side of caution is the norm. Having a better understanding of the processes involved in product deterioration and the factors influencing it would clearly provide us with a better model for shelf-life prediction. Such an improved understanding, together with a means to compensate for batch-related differences caused by unknown or invisible product pre-history (environmental perturbations, on-farm cultivation practices, sub-optimal transportation and storage, etc.) will enable more accurate and reliable determination of shelf life labeling.

In the META-PHOR project for example, metabolomics approaches were used to follow product deterioration under supermarket-identical conditions. Looking at both fresh melon and broccoli samples it could be shown that the transition between acceptable/suboptimal quality is remarkably sharp and the development of a lower quality product (containing e.g. off-flavors, showing color changes etc) occurs over a short period. What industry needs are quality/shelf-life predictors—so called "biomarkers" that are already present in the raw materials upon entering the factory. These biomarkers may represent either positive or negative attributes and as these are currently unknown molecules with unpredictable function, metabolomics would seem the most valuable approach to choose for their identification. However, once identified, metabolomics may no longer need to be used as the aim is to exploit subsequently the biomarkers in a simple kind of “predictor/dip-stick” type of test more suited to an industrial environment requiring cheap and rapid results on-site.

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