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“The priority has to be set on food safety”

An interview with Professor Dr. Christine Wittmann, Steinbeis Entrepreneur at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Bioprocess Analysis in Food Production

Bio-foods, pasta made from insect flour, algae beer – before new types of foods even make it into the supermarkets, they are thoroughly characterized by food analysts. The methods that scientists use for this purpose, current and future nutritional trends in this area, and upcoming tasks in food analysis of the future – were discussed in a TRANSFER magazine interview with Professor Dr. Christine Wittmann, Steinbeis Entrepreneur at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Bioprocess Analysis in Food and Production, and expert in rapid biochemical testing systems and biosensors.

Hello Professor Wittmann. The food of the future should be sustainable, healthy, and available to as many people as possible. This may lead to new and unconventional foods such as algae bread, insect burgers, and steaks produced by 3D printers. How will these developments change the task of food analysis?

There have been various product developments in the food and beverages industry in recent years – examples include the brewing of algae beer or producing pasta from insect flour. At the same time, as you mentioned, 3D printing has also made its way into food manufacturing, however, so far to a major extent in the confectionery sector. Moreover, with the advent of the first personal 3D printers several consumers already established their own individual layout in wine gums. In terms of the raw materials used for food production, a number of trends are on the horizon. Vegan and vegetarian foods are becoming increasingly popular. For instance, vegan and vegetarian sausages are meanwhile quite well established. For purely vegetarian or vegan diets, it is of particular importance to consider vitamin contents, because raw materials based on vegetable ingredients often lack sufficient vitamin B12 levels. In addition, a balanced nutrition should also take an adequate supply with essential trace elements into account. In this regard, sometimes algae, like the Spirulina alga, can make an important contribution to a sustainable and healthy diet because they contain macro and micro nutrients, as well as other ingredients such as phycocyanin, which allows, furthermore, for the coloration of  foodstuffs in a bright blue. It is worth mentioning insects in this context. They do not only contain reasonable protein amounts, but, moreover, exhibit fatty acid profiles of interest for a healthy diet. To get a deeper insight concerning their nutritional value, food analysis using either classic or modern methods offers the basis to characterize insect ingredients in more detail.

In my opinion, and, hence, for the food and beverages` manufacturers, the top priority is food safety. This holds true irrespective of additional aspects that may be related, for instance, to new nutritional sources. The prerequisites are defined by food legislation with a series of laws with a key issue in allowing food producers to bring only foods to the market that are safe for consumption. To guarantee food safety, a reliable food analysis is crucial to protect the consumers.

Coming back to algae, for example, they have to be tested for the presence of cyanotoxins, which can be dangerous above certain levels. If we consider products made from insects, such as insect burgers, aspects such as the source, how the insects are kept, but also how they were killed, are all regulated by laws. If a completely new raw material is used to produce food (including beverages), manufacturers have to prove in the form of various test results that the products are safe, i. e. that they are free from any toxic compounds and that they do not contain potential allergens. Again, that is one of the tasks for food analysts. Another area where food analysis plays a key role focusses on the increasing awareness of health issues.

For example, the food and beverages` industry is asked to reduce the sugar and fat content of many of their products. For this purpose, a lot of research is necessary, where food analysis is also of key concern. The trend toward organic products (i. e. taking ecological issues into account) also requires food testing – another task that needs the support of food analysis.

As a food analyst, you invest a lot of time looking at sensors and rapid sensing methods that are currently required, and in some cases the highly decentralized character of food production has to be considered. I am referring to ecological farming of course. Based on the knowledge you are experiencing in science, can you see an emerging trend for this area in the future? Are we more likely to have decentralized, regional producers, or is the trend moving toward fewer factories, but big ones?

There is no easy answer to this question. However, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in even tighter levels of scrutiny, particularly in the meat processing industry. In parallel, there is an intense discussion about introducing an additional animal welfare label in Germany – “Aktion Tierwohl”. Again, this has prompted consumers to consider whether in addition to paying higher prices for foods of animal origin, further improvements should be made with a clear focus on the conditions under which animals are kept for food production, or whether certain methods such as castrating male piglets or culling male chicks should be regulated more clearly by legislation. Work still needs to be investigated to minimize the potential risks for consumers of meat, in general. It is easy to forget that in addition to the current threat posed by African Swine Fever, there are also endemic viruses like the hepatitis E virus, which will really need eradicating from pig farming, especially if we want to do more to reduce the risk of zoonoses. With regard to using genetically modified crops, there are already numerous rapid tests to allow for organic farmers  that there is no cross contamination if their arable land is adjacent to conventional farming areas. A particularly effective method for obtaining quick results is to use so-called lateral flow assays based on certain antibodies. That is also the case when feed additives such as soybean extraction flour are purchased from organic farmers and products need organic food labels.

Coming back to your question regarding producers, you have to remember that the conditions vary across the different federal states of Germany. For example in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, there are extensive farming areas. And then there are also areas under nature conservation. I think the trend there is more likely to go toward larger factories. The current situation under the coronavirus pandemic is that an increasing number of people are calling for more regional production. Another important factor is the rising demand for organic products. In my opinion, two opposing developments may become possible in agriculture of the future. On the one hand, there is a tendency toward Agriculture 4.0 (Smart Farming) involving lots of high-tech solutions, and on the other, there is a clear trend for improved organic farming based on sustainable principles. These developments correspond to two different price segments. But more and more consumers want to know where products actually come from and under which conditions animals are grown. Moreover, there is the issue of profitability, which is extremely important for farmers. In addition, it is difficult to foresee public policy in this area. Hence, an entirely conclusive answer to this question is difficult, but it will be fascinating to see where the journey will take us to.

Some of these new challenges also require new tools, in other words new analytical procedures and evaluation methods. What are the current trends in this area, and which ones will determine the future of food analysis from your point of view?

For quite a long time now, we have been working on the development of antibody- and DNA-based testing systems, and these can be used in a number of different formats. For example, they can be used in biosensors, for lateral flow assays based on test strips that can be read within minutes, and they can be applied to various microtiter plate formats to handle numerous samples in parallel. In collaboration with Biometec company from Greifswald we developed a variety of specific monoclonal antibodies, some of which can be used to test for the presence of RR soy, Bt corn, molds, and various allergens, and these antibodies are now available as basic materials for various testing methods. Also, instrumental methods of analysis are gaining importance, such as MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry, which allows you to identify microorganisms, molds, animal species, and fish species without having to go to great lengths to prepare samples. Aside from NIR methods, which have been common for quickly ascertaining the main ingredients of foods and drinks – such as proteins, fats, or carbohydrates – increasing use is now being made of Raman spectroscopy using handheld devices.

What impact will personalized nutrition have on your work? Will there be something like a “sensor for everyone” one day?

It would be good if we could have something comparable to the strategy of individually prescribed drugs, in the nutritional area, so you could receive recommendations tailored to a specific “healthy” diet, in a way that would also work prophylactically against physical and mental illnesses. For example, recommendations could be based on individual human microbiomes or people’s genetic predispositions. But there is still a great part of research needed in this area, not just in terms of individual genomes, but also regarding the human metabolome and especially the microbiome and its influence on long-term health. Also, the question remains who will pay the costs for such kind of individual testing and recommendations.

Even today, one question faced in food analysis is whether certain foods (including beverages) are originals, or whether there is food fraud ongoing. Will this become even more of a problem in the future? And if so, what requirements will result with respect to the analytical methods?

From my perspective, food safety is the more important factor, but the authenticity of food is and will remain extremely important. The priority has to be to ensure that food is safe, which was something that became abundantly clear with the horse meat scandal. First, they had to be sure that the meat actually came from horses that had not been treated with veterinary medicine, because if there had been drug residues, that could have caused a health problem for consumers that had eaten the lasagna.

Another important area where you need to be sure that food is not being tampered with is restaurants and catering. For example, it is found more frequently in the past that people are being misled with seafood. It is not easy to tell if a fillet of sole really is a fillet of the right fish or whether it was taken from a much cheaper flatfish. There are some really useful techniques for working out which fish is on the plate, based on selective antibodies, using DNA methods or MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry.

As already mentioned, what would be really exciting would be to find a way to use food and beverages to combat certain health deficiencies or illnesses. Everybody knows about yogurts that deliver bacteria to the digestive system and are supposed to have a positive influence on the microbiome. Of course the other question is whether they actually work, because everyone has his or her own microbiome. And it is still not clear whether the bacteria are actually alive when they reach the intestine. But the concept is very interesting in itself because there is scientific evidence that nutrition might play an important role  under certain medical conditions. The problem when it comes to actually doing something is that every solution is extremely specific; it has to be adjusted to the individual, which requires a lot of research and of course that is, at least at present, extremely cost-intensive.


Prof. Dr. Christine Wittmann (author)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Transfer Center Bioprocess Analysis in Food Production (Neubrandenburg)