NIRS: Let´s not talk about “new technologies” but about good applications

NIRS: Let´s not talk about “new technologies” but about good applications

What if we had a tool that we could carry in our pocket and that would allow us to control the quality of the food products at any point in their production?

Dear sirs, we have it!! It seems like and advert selling a panacea,I know, but I´m not going beyond reality…. I´m talking about Near Infrared Spectroscopy technology, known as NIRS, which has been in our lives for more than 30 years and,at last, we are taking good aim at applying it in places and moments that can get us out of many predicaments in our day-to-day lives in the agri-food sector, so let’s give it the treatment it deserves!

Well, being rigorous with this technology , near-infrared analysis is an instrumental technique in the field of molecular spectroscopy, wihich requires chemometric treatment of the data obtained, because the signal obtained in the near-infrared is so complex that the bands of the spectrum are difficult to interpret. And here we start with the complicated terms… chemometrics? Quite simply, statistical techniques to which you have to apply logic, good common sense and a lot of chemistry!!!!

Portable NIRS with tester of the CARNIQUS project

The methodology followed using NIR spectroscopy leads us through analyses aimed at characterising products by quantifying analytical parameters that are of interest to us or that are critical for quality control of both raw materials and products during processing or of the final product.

In addition, another application of this technique is that it is capable of discriminating products according to the quality standards set by the company itself at each stage of processing. In this case, these are (non-targeted) classification models that allow you to identify or detect that something has changed in the product, which may be due to a change in the raw materials (differences in nutritional composition), changes between batches (which may affect the final product), production problems (dosage of ingredients) and even if there is any adulteration in any ingredient used or possible contamination in its preparation.

The verification of a production process generally depends on the results obtained in a laboratory through long and costly analytical methods, which implies “not-inmediate” response times. NIRS technology is an analytical tool that allows us to track the traceability at any point and along the entire production chain and, therefore, provides us with important advantages in decision-making or problem detection in situ.

Nowadays, portable equipment not much bigger than a smartphone, is already available, capable of analysing a multitude of products by simply selecting the right modelat any given moment. Although, it must be said, these models have to be meticulously developed by personnel who are experts in the technology, and that is what research centres such as CARTIF are here for.

It has been almost 15 years since I came across this technology thanks to a colleague who worked with it and it was out of sheer conviction that I took the baton of this great technique with which I continue to advance, learning and working, so that companies, especially in the agri-food sector, get to know it and take advantage of all its benefits.

What is an online NIR and what are its uses?

What is an online NIR and what are its uses?

The quality control of the products we consume daily is carried out by means of reference methods that present great limitations as to the necessity of sampling (which may or may not be representative of the whole), which also entails the manipulation and even destruction of the sample (which is a significant economic expense) and does not offer us an immediate response, which makes difficult taking decisions.

The agro-food industry continuously seeks solutions of quick, simple and direct application in order to improve quality and security controls of food, both in the final product and in the different phases of its production chain, starting with the variability in raw materials.

The spectroscopic (near-infrared) NIR technique alone or combined with hyperspectral imaging methods and using chemometric tools in both cases is a technology that saves the tedious, costly and long laboratory tests that the product usually requires to control its production.

NIR technology in online mode allows the monitoring of a process and product without interfering in it, to carry out a continuous and individual control of the production and continuously supervising the quality of the product, which facilitates an immediate adjustment if it would be necessary, contributing directly to the profitability of the plant.

It is true that this technique requires prior preparation of equipment with a significant associated cost, but in the medium term, it is compensated by the ease and the speed in the response to this need.

There are a lot of applications in which agro-food industry has applied online NIR in its labs, for last 15 years, but very few have implemented it directly on the production line, where its advantages are clearly evident.

What would it bring us?

With the information obtained from each product in real time and on the processing line itself, we would facilitate the taking of decision to ensure its quality and safety.

Where do we start?

Identifying the moment in which the product requires the control of some critical parameter that ensure its quality.

How do we do it?

Creating calibrations for each parameter at each point in the process that we want to control.

In CARTIF, we are sure of these advantages because we have been working with this technology for more than 15 years. We have used it frequently to support companies in the agro-food sector, starting with a diagnosis of the process to identify in what way, how and when it is most advantageous and necessary its application and developing the methodology to implement it in the company.

During these years, we have developed a wide variety of applications for very different products: from cereals to pulses, feed, eggs, dairy products, meats, cured meat products, etc., saving important challenges in terms of heterogeneity of products and the determination of minority compounds.

Currently, in CARTIF, we carry on working to companies make the most of this technology and we go on developing new interesting applications for industry and, definitively, for the consumer, such as the identification of contamination of food with potentially dangerous products for sensitive people, whether due to allergies or intolerances.