Associate Professor of Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry Stéphane Bayen has spent the last seven years leading a research team with the goal of protecting everyday consumers from harmful chemicals, and from the effects of the substitution, adulteration or mislabeling of food products, otherwise known as food fraud. And though the fight against food toxicants and food fraud is a cause that’s easy to rally behind, it’s Bayen’s unconventional “non-targeted” approach to food analysis that is garnering significant attention and acclaim.

Most recently, his work has earned him the support and funding of Agilent Technologies, a California-based research and development company who has named Bayen the 2021 recipient of its Agilent Thought Leader Award, recognizing his leadership and contributions to the fields of Food Analysis and Food Authenticity.

“Food authenticity is a fundamental part of everyday life that we too often take for granted,” says Martha Crago, Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation. “Not only will Professor Bayen’s work help ensure our safety, but it also demonstrates the value of research in our daily lives. I congratulate him for the recognition he has received from Agilent Technologies.

Health and safety: the top priority

Food fraud poses a very real threat to our food system, misleading buyers into purchasing subpar products that damage consumer trust and impact product prices, and ultimately leading to economic losses for producers of authentic food. “Food fraud has the potential to cause adverse health consequences for consumers when illegal dyes or industrial chemicals contaminate our food supply, exposing them to higher doses of toxic chemicals or allergens through fraudulent products,” explains Bayen.

Targeted analysis–the conventional surveillance approach–consists of analyzing specific known markers in food, but it doesn’t detect unexpected adulterants, allowing fraudsters to quickly come up with new ways to fake these known markers in a food product. Bayen’s non-targeted analysis (NTA) approach, on the other hand, uses high resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) and advanced data processing tools and relies on the collection and the analysis of a large chemical fingerprint for each sample.

“Chemical fingerprinting, which can be used to track complex quality defects, has proven to be a more effective and robust approach to track food fraud. And although it allows us to investigate a wider range of quality attributes simultaneously and is virtually impossible for fraudsters to imitate, we still need to find a standardized approach to food authenticity testing,” he says. Therein lies the challenge that Bayen’s research aims to tackle.

Revolutionizing food analysis

Over the last several years, Bayen and his team have focused their research on honey, a natural sweetener with a variety of health benefits, that has become a popular target of food fraudsters. His McGill-based lab has applied NTA to look at honey’s chemical signature and, in so doing, have detected previously unknown contaminants. Their goal is to better understand the chemical fingerprints of honeys so as to be able to systematically compare and rank a wide-range of data to detect fraud and develop a standard protocol for the application of HRMS-based NTA to honey quality, a goal Agilent’s USD$200,000 award is sure to help Bayen and his research team achieve.

“We look forward to translating the knowledge and experience gained through HRMS non-targeted analysis into a new generation of surveillance tools that advance food safety and standardize food authenticity,” says Bayen, “and to continue to demonstrate how NTA can revolutionize food analysis.”