Developing a new, important folate analysis method

Advanced technology lies behind the mass spectrometer Eystein Oveland is using. (Anders Jakobsen / Institute of Marine Research)

NIFES is helping to develop a new standard method for analysing folate. That will give us an even better understanding of the various forms of folate in food products.

This year NIFES has participated in a study involving 11 laboratories in the US, France, Spain and China to develop a new, better method for analysing folate in food products.

“Our goal is for this to become a standard method that can be used by laboratories all over the world to analyse food and dietary products”, says Eystein Oveland, one of the scientists at NIFES involved in the study.

The new method has just been approved by the Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC), an independent, international organisation that standardises analytical methods.

“When a method is standardised, it allows researchers all over the world to directly compare their results. That is a huge advantage, both for research purposes and when reporting results”, says Oveland.

Different forms of folate

Folate, which the new method is used to analyse, is a B vitamin that many people associate with pregnancy. Pregnant women often take folate supplements to reduce the risk of their child developing spina bifida. This vitamin is also important for other reasons.

It plays a big role in the body’s ability to make DNA and produce enough red blood cells, and is important to foetal development.

Currently NIFES can analyse total folate, but the new method is also capable of distinguishing between the various forms of folate.

“This will give us an even better understanding of folate and the role its various forms play in both humans and fish, which is our particular area of interest at NIFES”, says Oveland.

Used since the 1990s

Currently NIFES analyses folate using a microbiological method. This is a method that has been used since the early 1990s.

“It will be difficult to continue using this method in the long run”, says Nina Wollertsen, a senior engineer at NIFES.

She has done a lot of analyses using this method at the NIFES laboratory.

“The manufacturers of chemicals we need for the method have stopped producing them, and anyway it is a very time-consuming method” explains Wollertsen.

The new method uses mass spectrometry. This involves scientists using a mass spectrometer, which is a kind of advanced scale for weighing molecules. The instrument breaks the folate molecules down into smaller fragments before analysing them. As well as being much quicker than the old method, the new method can distinguish between the various forms of folate with a high level of precision. The method also has a larger measurement range, which makes preparations easier.

The first step

When new methods of analysis are developed, they have to be certified in order to become standardised methods that can be used by laboratories all over the world.

Now the new analysis method for folate has been approved by the AOAC for the analysis of infant formula and dietary supplements for adults. These products are strictly regulated because of the importance of ensuring that they have the right composition for their consumers. Since foods and dietary products are traded between countries, it is important for analyses of these products to produce the same results wherever they are performed in the world.

The approval from the AOAC is in many ways the first step towards getting other global standardisation organisations to approve the folate method.

“So now we are working on getting it ISO certified”, says Oveland.

The ultimate goal is to get the method of analysis approved by CODEX, the gold standard for food products.

“Going right back to when we were called the Vitamin Institute, it has always been important for us to be at the forefront of vitamin analysis methods, to enable us to provide reliable analyses both of food products and in our research”, says Oveland.