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Mass Spec in Food Chemistry

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An interview with Dr. Michele Suman, Food Chemistry & Safety Research Manager at Barilla Spa and WP Leaderin the EU-FP7 FoodIntegrity Project and in the EU-H2020 MyToolBox projects.. A specialist in the field of food chemistry, food contact materials, sensing and mass spectrometry applications for food products.

MK: Could you tell us a bit about your early career and how you got involved in food science?

MS: I approached food chemistry passing through a journey among materials and sensors. My career began in the late 90's, when I was still in the graduate thesis period (passing the nights in the lab at University to complete it), working in Ferrara at the Shell Giulio Natta Research Center (Italian Nobel for Chemistry, famous for inventing one of the most important plastic materials in the world: polypropylene). At the time I was in charge of catalysts for developing new plastics materials and Barilla contacted me for a position in research on food contact materials. In later years I began to get interested in innovative materials and molecular sensors suitable for capturing volatiles, including food molecules. There came out a parallel PhD path and a short but intense experience in the Netherlands where I learned the basics of mass spectrometry. 

Since 2004 I have been conducting research activities focused mainly on food safety, being progressively attracted by the real feeling of being useful to the community through the development of solutions devoted to improve the effectiveness of the food chains up to the commodities on the table of the people.

MK: Can you tell us a little about Barilla Advanced Laboratory Research?

MS: In an increasingly competitive, diversified and – most importantly – international market, the importance of scientific knowledge for food companies emerges with greater force.

An ongoing process of growth and innovation has made Barilla a leading company in the product categories that are most characteristic of the Italian and Mediterranean food model.

In this fruitful scenario, the role of the Barilla Advanced Laboratory Research (ALR) is now to build corporate scientific know-how that integrates different functions and countries, taking into account their diversities, but at the same time promoting a shared language and culture. 

The wealth of scientific knowledge acquired in many fields such as the chemical-physical, microbiological and food safety areas, gives a leading edge to the ALR and enables them to contribute to the development and industrialization of products, from their conception up to distribution in the market. It also makes them capable of providing answers and solutions to many different problems in crucial areas such as product innovation, food safety, quality, problem solving, as well as working in advance with respect to guidelines and new regulations issued by food authorities and agencies.

MK: What is the importance of food chemistry, sensing, and mass spectrometry?

MS: People are more and more keen on healthy and high quality commodities that also meet sensory requirements. A correspondent answer that can rise from food chemistry is the characterization of food components, the identification and quantification of additives, micro/macro-constituents, allergens, chemical and microbiological contaminants, flavour compounds, together with the confirmation of authenticity and traceability perspectives. Mass Spectrometry is in my opinion “The Queen” of analytical strategies that plays a fundamental role in all these aspects. 

In the last 20 years there has been an incredible evolution of its applications, sensitivity and instrumental solutions that are continuously delivering specific robust and validated confirmatory and screening methods.

At the same time there is the parallel need to explore sensing solutions for rapid monitoring of both safety/nutritional parameters and key-desired organoleptic molecules. 

MK: Could you provide us with an overview of your work on mycotoxins?

MS: Mycotoxins surely represent one of the main global food safety concerns in cereal-based commodities (such as bread and pasta) and in food/feed in general due to their potential health risks for humans and livestock. Therefore, food companies are progressively forced to set up in their laboratories analytical methods for determining these kinds of toxins in an accurate, sensitive and rapid way. Following this issue, in 2008 we set up one of the first LC-ESI-IonTrap-MS/MS methods for the simultaneous determination of several type of key-mycotoxins in cereals. After a couple of years we improved this LC-MS analytical approach extending its application to many finished food products, working in collaboration with the Italian National Research Council CNR-ISPA. In a parallel way, this private-public collaboration has been providing in the last decade several significant milestones in the field of rapid mycotoxin detection through the fluorescence polarization immunoassay technique. At the same time, in 2011-2013 we worked hard to validate lateral flow devices for direct exploitation in the common/durum wheat chains. 

Then, since 2010, collaborating with Universities (in particular University of Parma and IFA-Tulln University in Wien), we have been acting as a pioneer in applied industrial research on myocotoxins evolution along food processing. The technological processes employed seem to play an important role in the phenomenon associated with “masking”. The mechanical energy of heat during the transformation process can cause significant changes, which can prompt reactions with macromolecules, such as sugars, proteins or lipids, or release the parent compound of the toxin after decomposition of the conjugated compound. Many factors must be considered in this research because complex physicochemical modifications occur throughout the transformation of raw ingredients into the final product. In the last 2 years I have had also the honor and responsibility of coordinating an Expert Group of the ILSI Processing Compounds & Natural Toxins Task Force (where I act as Vice Chairman) that has just released (end August 2016) an open-access review entitled “Impact of food processing and detoxification treatments on mycotoxin contamination”.

Finally, in the last 4 years, due also to my unchanged passion and faith for mass spectrometry, we are enthusiastically working on the new horizons of Ultra-High-Performance Liquid Chromatography combined with High-Resolution Mass Spectrometry. We have successfully exploited this for the complete selective and quantitative determination of three major cross categories of contaminants (pesticides, antibiotics and mycotoxins) in complex bakery matrices such as biscuits or minicakes.

Last but not least, in 2016 I have started a new adventure as Work Package Leader and Board Member of a four-year project recently funded by the European Commission (MyToolBox - kick off March 2016) mobilizing a multi-actor partnership (academia, farmers, technology SMEs, food industry and policy stakeholders). MyToolBox is focused on the development of novel interventions aimed at achieving the integration of practical and affordable pre/post-harvest tools that can be used by farmers and food processors in order to reduce the risk of mycotoxin contamination of crops, feed and food, to prevent losses and waste along the food chain, while also utilizing mainstream ICT technology.

MK: What are the key challenges that need to be overcome in food chemistry? 

MS: Undoubtedly, from the point of view of industrial research, there is a big challenge related to the globalization of the market, combined with the world economic crisis that put high risks in terms of low quality/safety of ingredients & frauds/adulterations issues. Therefore Food Chemistry has to look, as much as possible, for effective traceability solutions and both rapid/confirmatory analytical approaches for wide/”just in time” monitoring or “unequivocal” answers, working progressively towards the development of multianalytical methods that allow for easy and precise quantitation of different classes of relevant molecules. 

This scenario implies a continuous cross-fertilizing environment of exchanges between academic-public and private research players.

Along this way there is the fascinating world of “omics” techniques, pursuing the objective to describe in an exhaustive picture all the molecules that play a role in a given system, a food or an organism that has eaten it!

Another challenge is the huge amount of data produced by the new advanced methodologies where there is the concrete menace to set the “bottleneck” not carrying on the analysis but rather after the analysis, during the elaboration of the results. This will probably require a new generation of “interdisciplinary” food chemists with stronger informatics/statistics knowledge.

MK: How do you see the field developing in the future?

MS: Portability can be the future, with the idea of achieving a high level of miniaturization, putting the food chemistry lab directly in the hands of the stakeholders that move from the farmer, to the storage center, to the inspector or the final consumer.

You can find more information about Dr. Suman and his work with MyToolBox here https://www.mytoolbox.eu/people/michele_suman

Michele Suman was speaking to Matt Knight, Assistant Editor for Technology Networks.