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Developing Techniques for Food Analysis

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An Interview with Peter Q. Tranchida, Associate Professor, University of Messina

Prof. Tranchida tells us a little about his career and the work he is doing to develop innovative gas chromatography-mass spectrometry methods for food analysis.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your early career and how you got involved in food science?

A: I graduated in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and Technology at the University of Messina (Italy) in 1993. I worked as a chemist for nine years (1994-2002) in an industrial flour mill, where I was responsible for the analytical chemistry laboratory. At the end of 2002, I was awarded a PhD position in Food Chemistry and Safety, and so I left my industry job. During the PhD course, I got heavily involved in the use of advanced gas chromatography methods in food analysis. In 2011, I was assigned a position as Associate Professor in Food Chemistry.

Q: What have been some of your most rewarding achievements been so far?

A: - The supervision of several highly-talented PhD students who will, I am certain, have outstanding careers. 

- In 2012, at the"9th GC×GC symposium", held in Riva del Garda, I received the "John Phillips Award", for achievements in the field of comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography. As a PhD student, I read practically all the papers of John Phillips and was extremely motivated by his work and impressed by his extraordinary talent. In short, he is one of my favorites in the entire GC field, and so I was very honored about the award.

Q: Can you tell us a little about the research directions of the labs you work in?

A: The lab has strong experience in the field of gas and liquid chromatography applied to food analysis. During the last 15 years the main focus has been on the development of comprehensive chromatography-mass spectrometry methods, again applied to food analysis, along with other sample types, such as petrochemicals, fragrances, biological, etc.

Q: What are some of the challenges of analysing highly complex food mixtures?

A: The challenges can be found at various levels; if one is interested in qualitative profiling then you need a high resolution chromatography-mass spectrometry method for such a scope. Even so, in specific instances, the resolving power of a high resolution method, such as comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography, is still not sufficient to separate all sample analytes. Just as an example, the comprehensive GC chromatogram of the aroma of roasted coffee is usually characterized by more than a 1,000 peaks, many of which are probably formed of more than compound. 

If, on the other hand, the main focus is related to the determination of trace-amount contaminants (targeted analysis) then both adequate sample preparation and mass spectrometry processes are of the highest importance. 

Q: Can you tell us more about flow-modulated 2D gas chromatography-mass spec, and some of the advantages that this method offers?

A: Flow modulation is a low-costing alternative to cryogenic modulation. The upgrade of a GC-MS system to a flow-modulated one, requires a modest economical investment. Additional advantages are related to the possibility to efficiently-modulate a wider range of compounds, from high to low volatilities. Flow modulation is also characterized by some drawbacks, inasmuch that these systems offer a inferior performance in terms of peak capacity generation, while the optimization process is even-more trickier. 

In recent years, I have devoted a great deal of research to the reduction of the gas flows used in such devices (another disadvantage). At the moment, we are performing flow-modulated comprehensive GC at gas flows (5-6 mL/min) that can be accommodated by the majority of commercially-available mass spectrometers.

Prof. Tranchida was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Editor for Technology Networks.