Recent mentions of near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy have focused on the James Webb Space Telescope and the remarkable images it captures. These images are exciting, but they are not the only applications for NIR technology. Scientists are using it closer to home to better predict food shelf life and prevent food adulteration.
assessment of durability
Currently, the best-by or use-by dates printed on food labels are arbitrarily assigned and contribute to millions of pounds and billions of dollars in food waste every year. This data is often randomly assigned and may vary from state to state. For example, in Montana, milk must have an expiration date 12 days after pasteurization. California leaves best-by dates up to manufacturers, and Texas doesn’t set guidelines.
Determining the shelf life of a product is a challenge. Aside from simple monitoring to determine when something is spoiling, food processing plants limit themselves to studies to identify and test the causes of spoilage. Everything from the microbiology of the food to the amount of water or pH can affect how quickly a product spoils and how long it lasts on the shelf.
Near-infrared is that part of the light spectrum that is just outside of what the human eye can see, right next to red. Using NIR moisture transmitters and spectroscopy during the food testing phases can more accurately determine the causes of spoilage and the shelf life of a given product .
Sensors use this non-visible part of the light spectrum to detect the chemical bonds between atoms in carbon-based or organic compounds. Each compound has a unique wavelength. These scanners can also monitor the breakdown of atomic bonds, which indicates food spoilage.
This ability also allows NIR spectroscopy to better predict food shelf life by monitoring the quality of ingredients and painting a clearer picture of how long they might last on the factory floor or on grocery store shelves.
prevent food adulteration
Food adulteration and adulteration are increasing problems. At best, consumers buy salmon trout believing they have bought salmon. In the worst case, food adulteration can be dangerous or even fatal.
For example, powdered milk is used in everything from baked goods to baby food. It is graded based on its protein content, which has traditionally been determined using a nitrogen test. Food counterfeiters found that diluting powdered milk with other nitrogen-rich substances could fool the assay, allowing them to benefit more while expanding their supplies.
Unfortunately, many of the nitrogen-rich chemicals chosen for this adulteration—like melamine and cyanuric acid—become dangerous at higher concentrations. This can harm infants who may rely on formula milk for their primary nutrition.
NIR spectroscopy can help detect and prevent food adulteration as it is not as easily fooled as a nitrogen test. Every organic compound has a unique fingerprint, and NIR spectroscopy can detect these fingerprints. Preventing food adulteration could help reduce waste and avoid costly or dangerous product recalls.
Detect spoilage and predict taste
The good news for food manufacturers is that NIR spectroscopy could soon become much more affordable and accessible. Researchers have developed a Bluetooth-enabled, pocket-sized NIR scanner that can detect food spoilage in animal proteins and determine product freshness and shelf life.
It estimates the water content, fats, proteins or carbohydrates in animal product samples. It can also detect and monitor variables in products, such as B. total soluble sugars, which determines how sweet the ripened product might become, as well as titratable acidity and other similar data points.
Pairing this data collection with a machine learning system means that the more samples these scanners are exposed to, the more accurate their readings become. Imagine being able to pull a phone-sized device from your pocket to determine when a harvest is best or which tomatoes taste best on the shelf. The technology is not yet ready for these commercial applications, but the potential is there.
NIR spectroscopy may seem like a complex science destined for outer space or underground laboratories. But its ability to detect spoilage and product adulteration, predict shelf life and even signal when food is ready to harvest signals a bright future for the technology in food safety.