Science - November 14, 2011

Rikilt launches 'starch detective'

Food safety institute Rikilt has launched an application that can match starch grains to the plant they come from. It can help uncover food contamination or label fraud.

This photo is supposed to be grainy
The computer program, which will be available from mid November, has a number of applications.'  For example, you can see whether buckwheat really is gluten-free and check they haven't added standard corn,' says Leo van Raamsdonk, a researcher at Rikilt and responsible for the program. There are also scientific applications: 'Archaeologists would like to know what people ate in the past. So you can examine plaque on dental remains to see what starch it contains.'

Starch grains vary from plant to plant, both in their shape and their reaction to dyes. Most common crops contain starch and as a result starch grains can reveal the origin of a great many products, not just food but also products such as wallpaper paste. Van Raamsdonk is expecting most interest to come from the scientific community and the food industry.
People who want to use the program to identify grains have to answer thirteen questions with example photos. At the end, the program gives the plant of origin with the best match. It is not dissimilar to the flora biology students use to determine plants. There is also an option to compare the grains directly and the system contains an awful lot of example photos.
Van Raamsdonk's secondary objective is to record and retain this specialist knowledge. Microscopy is currently less in demand in food quality investigations. Some applications have been abolished due to the cuts and the termination of subsidies. On top of that, people often prefer high-tech methods such as chemical or genetic analyses.
Van Raamsdonk thinks microscopic techniques are undervalued: 'Not all complex problems necessarily have complex answers. Sometimes the answer can be simple.' He cites the example of a type of genetically modified potato. You could use an expensive genetic test, but you can also detect it through its distinctive starch grains.
The module comes with the latest version of the Determinator computer program. Van Raamsdonk hopes other scientists working on determination systems will be interested. The system can be anything: crystals, viruses, animals or plants. Earlier versions of the program already had modules for recognizing poisonous ragwort in animal feed, for example.