Food chemistry: field of study, elements, applications

Food chemistry has an origin closely intertwined with agricultural chemistry, and was consolidated in the twentieth century with technological development. It has made great strides in food analysis, handling, processing, manufacturing, and preservation.

Food chemistry studies the composition and properties of food

It is an interdisciplinary science based on chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, molecular biology, among other disciplines. Its objective is to maintain the nutritional value of food and control aspects such as flavor, aroma, texture, color, among others.

Study all food groups such as cereals, vegetables, meats and fruits, analyzing separately each of the constituent elements of all foods; for example, carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, vitamins, minerals, etc.

History of food chemistry

Food science as a scientific discipline was created in the second half of the 19th century, as a consequence of the important development of chemistry in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Lavoisier (1743-1794), French chemist, biologist, and economist, established the fundamental principles of combustion and organic analysis and made the first attempts to determine the elemental composition of alcohol, and the presence of organic acids in various fruits.

Scheele (1742-1786), a Swedish pharmacist, discovered glycerol and isolated citric and malic acids from various fruits.

Justus von Liebig (1801-1873), a German chemist, classified food into three large groups (fats, proteins and carbohydrates), and devised a method to obtain meat extracts that was used throughout the world until the middle of the 20th century . He also published in the second half of the 19th century, what appears to be the first book on food chemistry, Research on Food Chemistry .

Until the end of the 19th century, the development of analytical chemistry methods and advances in physiology and nutrition made it possible to deepen the knowledge of the main chemical components of food.

The expansion that characterized the Industrial Revolution and the changes from rural to urban societies modified food production and created public health problems due to frequently inappropriate hygienic conditions and their adulteration and falsification.

This situation led to the birth of institutions with the purpose of controlling the composition of food. The importance that this discipline was gaining favored specialists in food chemistry and the establishment of agricultural experiment stations, food control laboratories, research institutions, and the foundation of scientific journals in the area of ​​food chemistry. .

Currently, the globalization of food consumption, the appearance of new raw materials, new technologies and new foods, together with the wide use of chemical products and a growing interest in the food-health relationship, poses new challenges for this discipline.

Field of study of food chemistry

Food chemistry is a science whose range of action is very wide. It focuses on the study of the chemical, physical and biological properties of food.

It is also responsible for evaluating a wide variety of aspects such as the effects of processing, the addition of chemicals and their effect on quality, as well as the cost, safety and nutrition provided to consumers.

Biological and non-biological substances

Food chemistry focuses on the study of all kinds of nutrients. Among the biologicals, also called organic, we have meat, eggs, milk, vegetables, flour, etc. And of those classified as non-biological or inorganic, we have substances such as water, minerals, chemical additives or preservatives, and flavors, among many more.

Physical and chemical properties

It is of vital importance for food chemistry to determine in detail the chemical structure and all the physical and chemical properties that food and each of its components have.

Chemical and biochemical reactions

Food chemistry deals with knowing in detail all the chemical reactions that normally occur in food. Also of those chemical and / or biochemical reactions that could occur in its components, accelerating the deterioration of nutrients. These include denaturation of proteins, hydrolysis of starch, oxidation of lipids.

This discipline is also in charge of investigating the chemical and / or biochemical reactions by which food products can be improved; like fermentation, for example, increasing the quality of food.

Optimization of all processes

For food chemistry it is necessary to know and control all the factors and conditions of food production, handling, processing or manufacturing.

They optimize the decrease in the modification of food constituents, improve the formulation, processing and storage of food. And they also take care of attributes such as texture, flavor, color and smell.

Quality and safety properties

This science is interested in the health of food and the safety of its consumption, dealing with the study of the harmful effects that it can cause on the health of consumers.

Supervise that food is free of microbial contaminants, elements that cause allergies, chemical components harmful to health.

It also checks all the factors related to sterility, such as temperature, packaging conditions for specific products, among other aspects.

Long-term preservation of food

It is a field of study to analyze and maintain all the suitable conditions that allow prolonging the life and freshness of vegetables, fruits and other foods, even during their commercialization.

It also seeks to avoid conditions incompatible with life, carefully studying the use of chemical additives for the long-term preservation of food.

Study items

The essential function of food is to provide the body with essential nutrients to meet the energy, regulatory and structural requirements that the cells of all living beings need.

Food chemistry therefore exhaustively studies the organic and inorganic molecules and elements found in different types of food. For example: proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins, water, minerals, among others.

Amino acids and proteins

High protein foods
High protein foods

Amino acids are simple organic molecules that contain an amino group and a carboxyl group as basic elements of their structure. They are the structural units of complex organic molecules called proteins.

Food chemistry studies in great detail all aspects of amino acids and proteins. It addresses the origin of peptides from their coding in DNA , to their formation.

Proteins are the object of great interest due to the great variety of functions they have in the body: structural, regulatory, transport, defense of the body, among others.


High carbohydrate foods

Carbohydrates, also called carbohydrates or polysaccharides, are the organic molecules polyhydroxyaldehydes or polyhydroxyaketones, which constitute the body’s first source of energy.

They are found in vegetables, cereals, and vegetables, which are rich in starch, a complex carbohydrate or polysaccharide. Meanwhile, fruits are rich in simpler carbohydrates, such as the disaccharide sucrose.

When ingested, they are enzymatically degraded to glucose, one of the most important monosaccharides, which is oxidized, providing energy to living beings.


Foods rich in lipids

Lipids are a very complex group of molecules, both structurally and functional, that are insoluble in water. There are amphipathic lipids, such as phospholipids, that have one end related to water, while their other end rejects it.

There are saponifiable lipids, which are rich in fatty acids, and unsaponifiable ones, which lack them. Among the unsaponifiables are fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K.

Lipids are mainly found in foods of animal origin, such as meats. They are also found in milk and its derivatives, and in grains, such as soy, corn, among others.

Water and other elements

Just as water is found in a large proportion in living beings, the same happens in food. Its content can vary between 50 to 90%. However, it can be a source of contamination and spoilage in some foods that are not dehydrated or processed properly.

Food chemistry applications

Chemistry applied to food has applications in the traditional areas of agriculture, the food industry, in the different areas specialized in nutrition, in diets and in general in all food-related businesses.

It supports various areas of food research, where advances have been made in terms of functional foods, dietary supplements such as nutraceuticals, among others.

Nutritionists and other areas rely on food chemistry to identify biologically active components. They are the components of the food that are considered positive, beneficial or optimal, whose intake is recommended to control the risk of various diseases.

It has also promoted the development of organic and genetically modified foods, always seeking to satisfy the current needs of a balanced diet that is in favor of maintaining health.

Food chemistry plays a key role in current research, in molecular gastronomy, in food biotechnology and nanotechnology. In short: it is a science allied with new ways of living, eating and making food become the medicine of the body.

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