Fingerprinting Techniques to Identify Olive Oils

Olive oil is one of the most prestigious agri-food products in Spain and forms the basis of the Mediterranean diet. This is why cases of falsification and commercial fraud occur when it comes to the origin and varieties of a product of such economic and commercial interest. Today, a team from the Faculty of Pharmacy and Food Sciences, the Food and Nutrition Campus of Torribera, and the Nutrition and Food Security Research Institute (INSA) of the University of Barcelona (UB) presents a new authentication tool to verify the geographical origin of virgin olive oil as a control of quality, tradition and the product linked to the territory.

The new methodologycreated for different geographical levels, has been published in journals food chemistry and food control, and was set up as part of the work of UB’s Lipids and Bioactive Compounds in the Food Chain (LiBiFOOD) Research Group, aimed at creating analytical tools to verify the authenticity of foods and prevent food fraud. The Institute of Agrifood Research Technology (IRTA) also collaborates in these projects.

Fingerprinting Techniques to Identify Olive Oils

In the food authentication process, it is important to have analytical strategies that verify the origin of products and help establish the official method. The new tool provides an answer to this need for food safety and traceability and presents an authentication strategy applicable to different geographical scales.

“The new methodology allows us to distinguish between virgin olive oils produced in the European Union and those that are not, in addition to classifying them according to the country of origin and verifying which oils belong to the appellations protected geographical origins from the same region or even adjacent”, note researchers Stefania Vichi and Alba Tres, coordinators of the Food Authentication Research Line and members of the Food and Nutrition Campus of Torribera and the ‘INSA.

The new geographic authentication strategy is based on the analysis of sesquiterpene hydrocarbons – organic compounds formed from three isoprene units – which have proven to be excellent origin markers for olive oil.

“The cornerstone of an effective authenticity tool is that it is based on robust analytical markers. In the case of the geographical authentication of virgin olive oil, the markers depend largely on the variety of olive tree and the area where it grew, without being significantly influenced by other factors related to the process of olive oil. extraction or conservation of pol,” notes researcher Beatriz Quintanilla-Casas (UB-INSA), first author of the studies.

“The sesquiterpene hydrocarbons found in virgin olive oil meet requirements from above,” she continues, “and are robust geographic markers of this commercial product. Moreover, as they are semi-volatile compounds, they can be easily analyzed with a widely used analytical tool – gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry – with prior solid-phase microextraction, a relatively quick procedure. and automated that does not require the use of solvents. »

The new protocol can authenticate virgin olive oils through a fingerprint, which works similarly to using fingerprints to recognize people. “In this case,” explains researcher Vichi, “the sesquiterpene fingerprint is used for the development of geographical discrimination models that allow us to identify oils that show a very different analytical signal from those considered to be reference oils. “.

“Traditionally, reference methods for product authentication are based on the determination of one or a few compounds, so legal limits are set to decide whether the product meets certain specifications. Unsupervised methods, such as fingerprinting, allow all available analytical data to be used, instead of focusing on certain compounds as traditional methods do,” notes Tres.

An accessible and easy-to-apply methodology

The innovative nature of the analytical strategy lies in the fact that it offers geographical benchmarks that have not been studied to date for this purpose. Moreover, the new protocol is based on an analytical technique that is within the reach of most control laboratories (public and private) and it only requires the application of a non-traditional approach.

“Thus, with the fingerprinting approach, we can use a large amount of analytical data provided by the technique, but which had not been considered until now,” notes the research team.

The process of transforming an analytical method into an official methodology with legal validity is slow and complicated, especially if the innovation provided is based on a non-targeted approach. In the case of the new technique, created in collaboration with virgin olive oil producers, the first potential users would be inspection and control laboratories, certification bodies and large marketing companies in the olive oil sector. ‘olive oil.

The proposal for a geographic authentication strategy presented in the study could become a new screening tool applicable to inspections and hearings, “to help ensure that products coming to market are authentic and therefore reduce opportunities for commercial fraud in the food sector,” concludes the UB team.

– This press release was originally published on the University of Barcelona website

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