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Improving food safety with 14-C processing [Interview]

We interviewed Bernd Göckener from Fraunhofer to find out how 14-C food processing leads to an improved understanding of what is chemically and biochemically going on in our food. 

Food processing involves an extremely wide spectrum of ingredients, steps and parameters involving countless amount of factors that can affect the final product. Knowing and controlling these factors is a major challenge in modern food industry, especially when it comes to food quality. We interviewed Bernd Göckener from Fraunhofer to find out how 14-C food processing leads to an improved understanding of what is chemically and biochemically going on in our food.

Can you briefly explain what Fraunhofer does and how it works?

"The Fraunhofer Society for the Advancement of Applied Research is Europe’s largest organisation for applied research and development. In our Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology (Fraunhofer IME), we conduct research in the field of applied life sciences from a molecular level to entire ecosystems. The main fields in our Applied Ecology Division focus on the environmental risk assessment of chemicals and agrochemicals as well as on the food safety and consumer risk assessment. As our division pools a lot of experience with radiolabelled substances, we transferred this radioactive tracing approach to food processing. This allows the monitoring of any kind of substances from farm to fork, including processing."

You will be giving an overview of 14-C food processing. Can you explain what this is exactly?

"The term 14-C food processing describes conducting close to real life food processing steps under radioactive conditions. Therefore, we have set up a new laboratory that serves as a fully equipped kitchen, the Radiokitchen. The available devices allow several food processing steps to be conducted ranging from simple domestic uses up to small-scale industrial applications. The whole laboratory is run as a radioactive control area. This means that we use radioactively –labelled, in our case 14-Carbon-labelled, substances whose fate can be traced using unique radioactive techniques."

Which specific challenges does 14-C food processing help quality and operations managers to overcome?

"As food processing involves an extremely wide spectrum of ingredients, steps and parameters there is a countless amount of factors, which affect the final product. Knowing and controlling these factors is a major challenge in modern food industry, especially when it comes to food quality. Exemplary problems that can be addressed and overcome by 14-C food processing are the formation of substances of toxicological concern (e.g. fate of pesticides), off-flavours or the loss of nutrients. Ultimately, these factors play an immense role in the product’s safety and consumer acceptance."

What is the potential of these technologies for F&B manufacturers and what are the main benefits?

"The use of 14-C-labelled substances clearly facilitates the understanding of chemical reactions in food processing. Taking a look at complex reaction pathways in food chemistry, e.g. Maillard reaction, we have to confess that so far many of these reactions are poorly understood while – at the same time – being highly important for the final product. 14-C food processing is capable of giving insights into these reactions, leading to an improved understanding of what is chemically and biochemically going on in our food. This knowledge may be of high value in several ways when it comes to optimizing industrial processing steps. Thereby, it is for example possible to understand and control reactions responsible for off-flavours or the formation of substances of toxicological concern (e.g. acrylamide)."

From a food processing perspective, what are your predictions for the next 3-5 years?

"In the next years, food industry’s focus further on will be on the consumers demand for healthy and high quality food. Recent surveys among consumers clearly prove that health and healthy nutrition as well as high quality products are of major interest. To comply with this demand, food industry has to gain more and more insight – also with respect to new resource-efficient technologies - into food processing on a molecular basis. Our 14-C tracing approach will facilitate to obtain this knowledge, which finally helps to follow the consumers demand for healthy and high quality food products."

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