Online Exclusives

Metabolomics Part I: Improving Quality & Health Profile of Food

By Gerard Klein Essink and Dr. Robert D. Hall | April 21, 2011

A look at how metabolomics can be used as a tool in the future of food quality improvements.

Modern consumers are increasingly better educated and have become more demanding regarding the food they eat. Aspects of food such as taste, nutritional quality as well as sustainability, sourcing and environmental impact are now often taken into consideration in consumer choice. In the Western world, there is an ever-growing demand for better tasting, healthier and safer foodstuffs. But even in developing countries, better quality, more nutritious food is highly desirable to cope with rapidly growing demand for staple foodstuffs.

These demands require new approaches to food improvement—both at the basic production level as well as at the level of food processing and distribution. New tools are needed and metabolomics is one such tool that is already being embraced by plant breeders and food procurers as well as food processors, food quality and food safety laboratories.

Metabolomics is a technology that focuses on detecting small molecules such as amino acids, organic acids, sugars, volatile metabolites (fragrance compounds) and many so-called secondary metabolites such as alkaloids, phenolic components and also pigments such as carotenoids and anthocyanins. Such molecules are present in a wide variety of combinations and concentrations in our food and food ingredients where they are known to play important roles in food quality, antioxidant activity, etc. Flavor and fragrance for example are almost entirely determined by such molecules.

Metabolomics has been designed to provide us with the broadest possible overview of the biochemical composition of complex biological samples. Chromatography (Liquid or Gas) is usually used to separate complex extracts into the individual components, which are then detected using Mass Spectrometry (MS). Alternatively, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) may also be used to quantify known compounds. The high throughput nature of the approach and the complexity of the information generated distinguish metabolomics from standard analytical chemistry. The technology has arisen from recent advances made in bioinformatics and Information Technology which were needed for storage and mining the complex data matrices. Metabolomics is currently most regularly used for comparative analyses to identify differences between sample preparation procedures, material sources and for improving processes leading to final food quality.

The importance of this technology was recognized by the EU Research division a few years ago, which is why they funded a multinational metabolomics initiative focused on plant applications relevant to the food and health industry (

Metabolomics has been developed to enable us to analyze the biochemistry of complex materials and to extract key information of relevance to their application. Metabolomics is already being developed for the medical field to extend our capacities for disease diagnosis and disease prevention. In the area of plants and food, major challenges are faced as crop plants are renowned for their biochemical complexity and their products (seeds, fruits, leaves, roots, etc.) comprise metabolite mixtures that change with development, age, environment etc. These mixtures, of course, determine the "quality" of our food in terms of their appearance, nutritional value, taste and fragrance. Furthermore, they are also fundamental for other factors such as shelf life, nutritional stability and market value. European and global food policies continually demand stricter monitoring of food quality and safety. There is therefore, a growing need for new tools to help us define and understand what we actually mean by “quality” and how this can be effectively measured.

Improved Crops as Sources of Healthier Foods

Most of what we eat on a global scale is plant-based—in some cultures, exclusively so. Crop plants and their products therefore are hugely important to human health through their contribution to our daily diet. At all points in the crop production chain—from breeder to supermarket—there is a demand for better products and metabolomics has the potential to help us achieve this.

Metabolomics will help us define in greater detail what exactly we are eating and how this is influenced. Metabolomics will also help us identify key biomarkers naturally present that we need in order to understand and monitor the interaction between food intake/uptake and human health. With such knowledge we will then be in a better position to design food production systems better suited to modern dietary needs.

Metabolomics is predicted to become a cornerstone in this field and will be exploited to advance breeding strategies and generate foodstuffs with optimal nutritional composition and meeting consumer quality desires. Furthermore, the food industry is continually in search of improved processing strategies to maintain quality, reduce loss and extend shelf life/stability. Metabolomics has a role to play here also and while the technology is still in a phase of development, applications are already in place.

The next installment of this article, will present three cases for the use of metabolomics. Please check back on Monday, April 25 for the second part of this three part series.

About the author: Gerard Klein Essink, MSc, is managing director of Bridge2Food in The Netherlands, and Dr. Robert D. Hall is managing director of Centre for BioSystems Genomics CBSG2012, Plant Research International, also in The Netherlands.

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