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A Guide to Food Testing against Contaminants

As consumers, we rely on food and beverage manufacturers to provide safe and healthy products. However, the process of producing food and beverages involves complex chemical reactions that can result in the presence of harmful substances. In this guide, we will explore the basics of chemistry testing of food and beverages, including its importance, regulatory requirements, and commonly used food testing methods.

Cans food testing

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The Importance of Food Testing

Apples Food testing

The primary objective of food testing is to ensure the safety and quality of food products. Testing helps detect and quantify contaminants and chemical residues that can pose health risks to consumers. It also helps identify potential allergens and nutrient content, which is critical for people with dietary restrictions.

Additionally, food testing is necessary to comply with regulatory requirements, such as the US Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health Canada’s maximum levels for chemical contaminants in foods, and California Proposition 65 (Prop.65) just to name a few. These requirements mandate the identification and/or labelling of harmful substances that may be present in food products.

Requirements for Food Testing

The food industry is a highly controlled one. Consequently, food testing is useful to ensure compliance with several food quality requirements. Relevant examples that a manufacturer, distributor, or seller of food products should consider include the following:

The Codex Alimentarius

Codex Alimentarius

First, the Codex Alimentarius is an international collection of food standards and guidelines developed by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a collaboration between the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO). It sets standards for food safety, quality, and trade, including limits for contaminants like:

  • Pesticides
  • Heavy metals
  • Mycotoxins
  • Additives
Indeed, member countries use Codex standards as a reference for their national food safety regulations, promoting harmonization and facilitating global trade while ensuring consumer health and fair practices.
Health Canada Food Testing

Health Canada’s Maximum Level for Chemical Contaminants in Food

Furthermore, Health Canada’s maximum level for chemical contaminants in foods is a regulatory guideline that establishes the acceptable limits of harmful substances present in various food products. These contaminants can include pesticides, heavy metals, environmental pollutants such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and other substances that may pose a risk to human health if consumed in excessive amounts. Compliance with these standards is crucial for food manufacturers, processors, and importers to guarantee the quality and safety of the food we consume.

The Safe Food for Canadians Regulations (SOR/2018-108)

Moreover, this set of regulations was implemented in Canada to enhance food safety and protect consumers. These regulations outline specific requirements and standards that food businesses, including importers, exporters, and manufacturers, must follow to ensure the safety and quality of food products. The regulations cover various aspects such as preventive controls, traceability, labeling, licensing, and inspection procedures.

European Union Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006

Additionally, this regulation establishes maximum levels for contaminants in food products within the European Union. It sets limits for various contaminants such as mycotoxins, heavy metals, dioxins, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to ensure food safety and protect consumer health. The regulation applies to a wide range of food items, and compliance with the defined maximum levels is enforced by member states through inspections and testing.

Food testing

US FDA CFR Title 21

FDA Food Testing

Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is a set of regulations governing food and drugs within the United States. It falls under the management of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for ensuring the safety, efficacy, and proper labeling of food and drug products.

Title 21 CFR covers a wide range of topics related to food and drugs, including:

  • Regulations on food safety
  • Labeling requirements
  • Manufacturing practices
  • Drug approvals
  • Clinical trials
  • Advertising and promotion
  • Post-market surveillance.


In fact, these regulations protect public health and ensure that consumers have access to safe and effective products. The regulations within Title 21 CFR outline the requirements that manufacturers, processors, distributors, and marketers of food and drug products must adhere to comply with FDA standards. The FDA enforces these regulations through inspections, audits, and other regulatory actions to ensure compliance and take appropriate measures when violations occur.

California Proposition 65 and Food Testing

California Proposition 65

There is also Prop.65 which is a California state regulation that mandates warning of chemicals that may cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm through exposure. This regulation applies to all consumer products sold or imported in California, including food and beverage products. Failing to comply can expose a company to lawsuits and a poor company reputation.

Thus, to confirm the quality and composition of food products and favour compliance with these regulations, food testing is performed.

Common Chemical Contaminants in Food Products

Various chemical contaminants can be present in food and beverages. These include heavy metals, mycotoxins, veterinary drug residues, food additives, and pesticides concentrations. They must be monitored, and their levels must be controlled. Let us explore each of these contaminants briefly:



Heavy metals

These include lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury, which can bioaccumulate in the body over time and cause health problems.


They are used to control pests in crops and can remain in food products even after washing and cooking.


Examples include:

  • Glyphosate
  • Glufosinate
  • AMPA


Toxic substances produced by fungi that can contaminate food products, particularly grains and nuts.


Common examples include:

  • Aflatoxin
  • Ochratoxin
  • Fumonisin

Veterinary drug residues

These are substances used to treat animals that can enter the food chain and cause health risks to consumers.

For example, penicillin is an antibiotic commonly used that can travel up the food chain.

Food additives

These chemicals, such as disodium EDTA, are added to food products to improve texture, flavour, and appearance. However, some additives can be harmful in large quantities.

Health Concerns related to Contaminants in Food Products

Cocoa beans

These contaminants are in various food products. Here are some common examples which often require food testing:

Testing Chocolate

Chocolate products may be tested for heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, which can be present in the soil where cocoa beans are grown. Moreover, they can also be present in packaging. Exposure to heavy metals can lead to:

  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney damage
  • Decreased fertility

Lead in Food Products

In fact, lead exposure primarily targets the central nervous system, where it can cause neurotoxic effects. It disrupts the normal functioning of neurons and can interfere with the transmission of signals between nerve cells. This interference can result in:

  • Impaired cognitive function
  • Reduced IQ levels
  • Learning difficulties
  • Behavioral changes, particularly in children


Lead also inhibits the enzymes responsible for the synthesis of heme, an essential component of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. As a result, lead exposure can lead to anemia, where the body lacks sufficient healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen adequately, leading to:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Thermal dysregulation
  • Decreased physical performance

Cadmium in Food Products

Another common contaminant to test for is cadmium contamination. This heavy metal has a long half-life. Thus, it bioaccumulates in the body over time, particularly in the kidneys and liver. Unlike other heavy metals, the body does not effectively eliminate cadmium, leading to its gradual build-up with repeated exposure. Furthermore, cadmium primarily affects the kidneys. Cadmium toxicity can impair its ability to filter waste products and maintain fluid and electrolyte balance.

Risks of Contaminated Sugar and Food Testing

Sugar may be tested for purity to ensure that it does not contain impurities that can affect product quality and safety. Additionally, sugar cane cultivation often involves pesticides to protect crops from pests and diseases. However, improper pesticide uses or inadequate adherence to safety guidelines can lead to pesticide residues in the sugar. These residues can find their way into water bodies, soil, and surrounding ecosystems during cultivation, affecting biodiversity and potentially contaminating water sources.

Contaminated Sugar

Food Testing of Seafood

Seafood products may be tested for contaminants, such as heavy metals and POPs. They can accumulate in fish and shellfish. Indeed, heavy metals like mercury can cause neurological damage, especially in developing fetuses and young children. Moreover, exposure to POPs like Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), through contaminated seafood consumption, can lead to adverse health effects, including:

  •  Hormonal disruption
  •  Immune system suppression
  •  Increased risk of cancer. 
Sea food testing

Food Testing of Chocolate

Sugar may be tested for purity to ensure that it does not contain impurities that can affect product quality and safety. Additionally, sugar cane cultivation often involves pesticides to protect crops from pests and diseases. However, improper pesticide uses or inadequate adherence to safety guidelines can lead to pesticide residues in the sugar. These residues can find their way into water bodies, soil, and surrounding ecosystems during cultivation, affecting biodiversity and potentially contaminating water sources.

Common Food Testing Methods

Chemistry Testing methods can detect and quantify chemical contaminants in food and beverage products which can be used to comply with environmental regulations. These include:

  • Chromatography: This is a technique used to separate and identify different chemicals in a sample based on their affinity to a solvent. It includes gas chromatography (GC) and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC).
  • Mass spectrometry (MS): This technique identifies and quantifies chemicals in a sample by measuring their mass and charge. It can be combined with chromatography techniques to improve sensitivity.
  • Atomic absorption spectroscopy (AAS): This technique measures the concentration of heavy metals in a sample based on the absorption of photons of an element’s atoms. This is a useful elemental analysis method especially within the food industry.
  • Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA): This technique detects and quantifies the presence of allergens and toxins in a sample. It relies on the principle of antigen-antibody interactions and uses enzymes as labels to generate a detectable signal.
  • X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry: A great method for food applications to determine the elemental composition of products. It includes minimal sample preparation, fast analysis times, non-destructive analysis, increased resolution, and can analyse solids as well as liquids.

Choosing a Food Testing Laboratory

Finally, choosing a food testing laboratory is an essential part of the food testing process. When selecting a laboratory, it’s important to consider several factors, including:

  • Accreditation: Look for a laboratory accredited by a recognized body, such as ISO 17025, to ensure that they meet specific testing procedures and quality control standards.
  • Expertise: Choose a laboratory with expertise in testing for the specific contaminants you are concerned about, such as heavy metals or pesticides.
  • Turnaround time: Consider the laboratory’s turnaround time for testing results, as this can impact product release and distribution.
  • Pricing: Compare the cost of testing services from different laboratories to find the most cost-effective option.
Oil testing laboratory

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