As grains may go through many processing steps – such as milling, fractionation, and extraction - to get to final processed foods, it is important to test throughout the grain production life cycle. In this article, we share our insights into how innovative and intuitive testing and analysis tools are helping the grain industry overcome quality challenges at different stages of the supply chain.
Global Market & Portfolio Manager – Grain
Cereal grains are one of the major food staples worldwide, equating to two-thirds of the energy and protein intake of the human diet. In 2020/21, it is was estimated that the annual total wheat consumption worldwide was 760 million metric tons. 1
Due to its central importance in global food chains, ensuring the quality and consistency of grains and grain-based products is essential for food processors. As grains may go through many processing steps – such as milling, fractionation, and extraction - to get to final processed foods, it is also important to test throughout the grain production life cycle. During any of these stages, unreliable raw materials can lead to costly and inefficient processes, wasted material and – worst of all – low quality or unappealing products.
In concert with this, quality concerns surrounding wheat and grains have also been exacerbated by recent adverse weather conditions, such as increased temperatures and rainfall, leading to damaged crop and off-quality.
As such, it’s never been a more important time to ensure the efficacy and accuracy of wheat testing solutions. By evaluating industry best practices in analysis, wheat and grain processors can be empowered to make informed decisions upstream and downstream.
Following are some insights on how innovative and inutiative testing and analysis tools and approaches can help at various stages of the supply chain.
THE FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE
Effective wheat and grain testing starts as early as the field or the grain elevator. Here, mycotoxins present the biggest threat in terms of safety and quality. The consumption of mycotoxin contaminated products can have acute and chronic health effects on humans and animals. Additionally, mycotoxin contamination can have a direct economic impact on the grain supply chain due to a
1) Decreased efficiency in the growth of farm animals
2) Trade losses because of import issues
3) Export limitations and direct losses in revenue of crop value.
The majority of these toxic secondary metabolites thrive in damp, dark environments, but also possess species that can pose issues in warmer environments too – for example, aflatoxin in corn harvests. 2
To protect the health of consumers and animals worldwide, legislation for mycotoxins is in place. To comply with these regulations, stakeholders must ensure that mycotoxin presence in their material is lower than a set maximum residue limit (MRL).
For mycotoxin detection and quantification, many testing methods have been developed, but not all testing methods are equal. It’s vital that testing solutions are affordable, easy to use and reliable—to ensure farmers, grain suppliers, mills, and cereal producers are able to apply these tools. Fortunately, advancements in research and development have produced mycotoxin testing technology that can be used more reliably in the field and non-laboratory settings.
Lateral flow tests are used for the specific qualitative or semi-quantitative detection of many substances including antigens, antibodies, and mycotoxins. These rapid and intuitive test systems are critical for the control and the determination of contaminants, as they allow for universal, accurate usage.
Additionally, with multiple threats, it is beneficial to use testing and analytical technologies that can handle multiple mycotoxin screenings in a streamlined and effective way. For example, if an instance of mycotoxin contamination is detected via lateral flow testing, the batch will immediately be flagged to undergo confirmatory testing using high-throughput methods such as ELISA kits.
These tools provide a great first-line defense against mycotoxin contamination and can identify all the major mycotoxin classes for streamlined and accurate results in a single sample. As mycotoxins are both chemically and thermally stable, they can survive further processing through to the final product stage; therefore, catching them early in the process is key.
Moving down the supply chain, wheat and grains are subject to further processing to create ingredients such as flour. If contamination is not detected in the upstream monitoring and testing, there is now a risk of producing much bigger outbreaks as it enters processing for snack and baked goods. Alongside mycotoxins, the incidence of other pathogens, such as E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria, is a concern among flour millers and food processors.
Ongoing occurrences of pathogen outbreaks demonstrate the importance of effective monitoring and traceability in the wheat and grains supply chain. If instances of contamination are identified and traced back to the source, be this at the grain elevator or in the factory, the relevant stakeholders can be informed, and appropriate measures can be taken to mitigate further risks and safeguard consumers.
Due to its inexpensive and easy to interpret nature, ELISA testing kits are an important tool at processing facilities for pathogen screening. Today, automated ELISA techniques are providing processors with rapid screening of multiple pathogens with next day results. By leveraging these solutions in-house, processors can better manage their food safety risks, from raw materials to hygiene protocol.
Automated solutions can also perform steps beyond extraction, including liquid handling, washing, incubation timing, plate reading, and automatic report generation. This results in a large reduction of hands-on time for technicians and greatly reduces the risk of human error.
To help streamline automation efforts, it can be beneficial to work alongside a full technology and support provider that can assist its customers across the entire testing workflow.
Quality Monitoring Online
Processors must continue to test and monitor their wheat and grain products as they pass down the supply chain. Near-infrared (NIR) instruments are a powerful example of this with the ability to be used both at-line and on-line.
At-line instruments are often utilized in flour mills as they can provide rapid quantification of moisture, protein and ash content of wheat during intake and tempering. Further downstream, on-line NIR instruments provide processors with real-time measurements of the moisture, fat and protein content of baked goods right through to the moment they leave the factory. This allows for the quality of novel products to be maintained throughout processing and reduces the chance of product recalls. Not only does this increase consumer confidence in companies, but it also dramatically reduces unnecessary waste that could be mitigated through more stringent testing.
In addition to the multitude of individual instruments available for safety testing, there are also more powerful solutions, capable of carrying out multiple analyses simultaneously. For example, corporate and contract laboratories often utilize the high-throughput capabilities of LC/MS/MS instruments.
Compared to other analytical methods, LC/MS/MS can provide higher sensitivity when detecting an incidence of contamination – be that pathogens, mycotoxins or pesticides. This provides stakeholders with confidence that their products will pass the varying safety threshold and guidelines across the globe. LC/MS/MS can also be used on a variety of food matrices without the need for laborious sample preparation. As such, outsourcing analytical testing to a corporate or contract laboratory can provide industry stakeholders with more confidence in their testing results.
Due to the high levels of staff turnaround within the food industry, the use of LC/MS/MS instruments must be outsourced to laboratories with staff who are trained to operate them. For some stakeholders, collaborations with contract labs can be a great way to access these instruments.
PLANT PROTEINS - CREATING THE PRODUCTS OF THE FUTURE
Consumer demands and tastes are always evolving. In recent years, the snack food and baking markets have seen a rise in the demand for products created with novel, protein-rich ingredients such as chickpea flour and other pulse-derived ingredients. This has partially been brought about by the popularity of plant-based diets and the more environmentally conscious consumer. These novel ingredients come with their own challenges and therefore analytical needs. Large wheat millers are rapidly adapting and expanding into this market. LC/MS/MS presents just one solution to aiding the development of these products, allowing for both safety and nutritional analyses to take place. Investing in the development of new products and getting it right the first time is invaluable and can lead to faster, more efficient new products on the shelves for consumers.
These new ingredients also present challenges when partially or fully replacing wheat due to the flour’s unique functional capabilities. The new ingredients must not only improve the nutritional profile, but they also must provide similar functionality in the final snack food or baked product.
Rheological tools are proving invaluable for the formulation of such products. These instruments allow millers and flour users to test various formulations on a small-scale reducing waste and expensive line-trials.
While flour milling is one of humankind’s oldest processes, it continues to evolve and adapt to the times.