Biosensors as an aid to food sustainability

Biosensors as an aid to food sustainability

August 01, 2018

Biosensors as an aid to food sustainability

An intelligent combination of biological components, such as enzymes or bacteria, and technological components, that detect physical and chemical changes and transmit them in the form of data: biosensors enable us to trace a food, measure its nutritional content or identify any pesticide contamination. Why? To give us healthier and healthier food and avoid waste.


Food sustainability is unthinkable without technological development. Those working in the industry know that these two sectors often go hand in hand, and there are countless technological innovations developed to aid and improve food production. Biosensors and biosensing technologies are amongst these innovations. The global market demands state-of-the-art methods, at the lowest possible costs, for guaranteeing the quality of the food we eat: biosensors are an opportunity that meets both these requirements.

Precise as electronics, sensitive as living beings

Biosensors are a high-tech synthesis of biology, physics and chemistry, and thus combine the benefits of biological systems with the swift, quantitative response of electronic instruments. 

A biosensor can be defined as an analytical device used to detect a specific substance. Upon contact with this substance, the biosensor reacts and transforms this interaction into quantitatively measurable data. One typical example is the glucose meter, the instrument diabetics use to measure their blood sugar levels. In this case, the biosensor element is the glucose oxidase enzyme. 

Quick and inexpensive, Food sustainability is unthinkable without technological development. Those working in the industry know that these two sectors often go hand in hand, and there are countless technological innovations developed to aid and improve food production. Biosensors and biosensing technologies are amongst these innovations. The global market demands state-of-the-art methods, at the lowest possible costs, for guaranteeing the quality of the food we eat: biosensors are an opportunity that meets both these requirements.


Precise as electronics, sensitive as living beings

Biosensors are a high-tech synthesis of biology, physics and chemistry, and thus combine the benefits of biological systems with the swift, quantitative response of electronic instruments. 

A biosensor can be defined as an analytical device used to detect a specific substance. Upon contact with this substance, the biosensor reacts and transforms this interaction into quantitatively measurable data. One typical example is the glucose meter, the instrument diabetics use to measure their blood sugar levels. In this case, the biosensor element is the glucose oxidase enzyme. 

Quick and inexpensive, biosensors have already been in use in the food industry for some time, especially for quality controls in accordance with the European HACCP safety regulations. In this context, they are often bacteria: examples include biosensors used to detect anti-bacteria substances (such as the antibiotics used on stock farms) in milk or to assess heavy metal contents in other liquids for human consumption. Biosensors can also be used to measure soil contamination, and for analyzing the toxicity of sediments prior to their reuse for farming. 

“Sensor technology is the leading edge of development in almost all farming and food production sectors,” explains Viviana Scognamiglio, a researcher with the Italian National Research Council and author of an article in the Food, Science and Nutrition section of SciTechConnect. “The sensor market has grown from 81.6 billion in 2006 to 184.1 billion in 2016. A major slice of this market comes from the revolution in biosensors which promote sustainable food in the near future”.


Efficient, precise aids

Innovations in the field of biosensors include many opportunities for state-of-the-art technologies capable of guaranteeing foods' quality, safety, genuineness and traceability fast and with low costs. “Food quality and safety are essential factors for sustainable, healthy food,” the expert continues. “Appearance, taste, aroma, nutritional content, functional ingredients, freshness and consistency are crucial parameters for consideration, as well as verification of the correct composition of natural components (sugars, amino-acids) or additives. At the same time, safe food requires compliance with legal limits on pollutant levels (heavy metals or pesticides). Biosensors are precise, efficient aids for measuring all these parameters”.

Practical applications

Food's chemical composition changes, especially during storage, and modifications to glucose and fructose content are well known to be responsible for the browning processes that typically affect fruit and vegetables, for example. Therefore, monitoring of glucose levels is an important freshness indicator: here, as in the glucose meters used by diabetics, biosensors function through the oxidation of the glucose oxidase enzyme, measured by an electrochemical sensor and converted into a quantitative index.

For the detection of insecticides and pesticides, on the other hand, most methods currently adopted use hydrolase enzymes, such as acetylcholinesterase or butyrylcholinesterase. The enzymes' catalytic activity is measured before and after exposure to the sample presumed to be contaminated: if there is a reduction in the enzymatic response, pesticides are present. For herbicides, biosensors are usually photosynthesizing organisms, such as algae.


What the future has in store

At present, biosensors are widely used in the early stages of the food production chain, but they could soon become part of every consumer's daily life. Several companies are developing labels which degrade at the same rate as the products to which they refer. Often, the expiry date marked on packs is simply an estimate, but a biosensor is able to provide a reliable indication as to whether the food is still suitable for human consumption, implying considerable benefits for food waste, which according to FAO figures now accounts for more than one third of global food output.

 have already been in use in the food industry for some time, especially for quality controls in accordance with the European HACCP safety regulations. In this context, they are often bacteria: examples include biosensors used to detect anti-bacteria substances (such as the antibiotics used on stock farms) in milk or to assess heavy metal contents in other liquids for human consumption. Biosensors can also be used to measure soil contamination, and for analyzing the toxicity of sediments prior to their reuse for farming. 

“Sensor technology is the leading edge of development in almost all farming and food production sectors,” explains Viviana Scognamiglio, a researcher with the Italian National Research Council and author of an article in the Food, Science and Nutrition section of SciTechConnect. “The sensor market has grown from 81.6 billion in 2006 to 184.1 billion in 2016. A major slice of this market comes from the revolution in biosensors which promote sustainable food in the near future”.

Efficient, precise aids

Innovations in the field of biosensors include many opportunities for state-of-the-art technologies capable of guaranteeing foods' quality, safety, genuineness and traceability fast and with low costs. “Food quality and safety are essential factors for sustainable, healthy food,” the expert continues. “Appearance, taste, aroma, nutritional content, functional ingredients, freshness and consistency are crucial parameters for consideration, as well as verification of the correct composition of natural components (sugars, amino-acids) or additives. At the same time, safe food requires compliance with legal limits on pollutant levels (heavy metals or pesticides). Biosensors are precise, efficient aids for measuring all these parameters”.

Practical applications

Food's chemical composition changes, especially during storage, and modifications to glucose and fructose content are well known to be responsible for the browning processes that typically affect fruit and vegetables, for example. Therefore, monitoring of glucose levels is an important freshness indicator: here, as in the glucose meters used by diabetics, biosensors function through the oxidation of the glucose oxidase enzyme, measured by an electrochemical sensor and converted into a quantitative index.

For the detection of insecticides and pesticides, on the other hand, most methods currently adopted use hydrolase enzymes, such as acetylcholinesterase or butyrylcholinesterase. The enzymes' catalytic activity is measured before and after exposure to the sample presumed to be contaminated: if there is a reduction in the enzymatic response, pesticides are present. For herbicides, biosensors are usually photosynthesizing organisms, such as algae.

What the future has in store

At present, biosensors are widely used in the early stages of the food production chain, but they could soon become part of every consumer's daily life. Several companies are developing labels which degrade at the same rate as the products to which they refer. Often, the expiry date marked on packs is simply an estimate, but a biosensor is able to provide a reliable indication as to whether the food is still suitable for human consumption, implying considerable benefits for food waste, which according to FAO figures now accounts for more than one third of global food output.


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