The Key to Your Heart: Valentine’s Treats and Sweets

Author: Euan Ross and Mike McCullagh

Valentine’s Day is a time to celebrate romance and love, often by gifting that special someone with sweet treats to enjoy throughout the day. But have you ever wondered where this tradition of edible gifting came from and how it is changing in the modern age? 

The first heart-shaped chocolate box was sold in 1861 by the British confectioner Richard Cadbury, who is ironically famed for both his chocolate manufacturing dynasty and strict, personal avoidance of sweet treats. Since then, generations have given the object of their affection candy gifts and shared sweetened beverages in candlelit settings. 

As the world grows increasingly calorie-conscious, the way we celebrate Valentine’s Day is undergoing a subtle transformation, with an increasing shift toward the use of natural sweeteners. In order to make this possible, incredibly complex chemistry goes on behind the scenes to maintain the flavor of sugar while reducing calorie content. Read on to discover how UPLC interfaced to ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) can be leveraged to help food and beverage manufacturers develop sugar-free products.   

The quest for sweet treats, without the sugar rush

As the concern around the health consequences of excessive sugar consumption continues to grow, many countries are taking action. For example, the UK government introduced the “sugar tax” in 2018 with the aim to improve public health. To date, similar taxes have been applied globally in approximately 40 countries. As a direct consequence of this, and of changing attitudes towards sugar in the general population, manufacturers have responded by significantly increasing the use of sweeteners.

Reformulated beverages have appeared on the market utilizing natural sweeteners, such as stevia, to reduce calorific content. In the European diet alone, there is a surprising variety of food products that contain steviol glycosides as sweeteners, including smoked/dried fish, fruit juice-based drinks, cocoa-based confectionary, sweet/sour preserves, breakfast cereals, beers, ciders, and other reduced sugar products. However, few sweeteners perfectly mimic the flavor of pure sugar. For example, while steviol glycosides can have hundreds of times more sweetness intensity, they are also known for their bitter aftertaste. This creates a need for analytical techniques that can thoroughly characterize chemical sweeteners to enhance their flavor profile. Regulations in the UK/EU are applied to monitor the average daily intake of food additives. As the potential for increased intake of sweeteners is recognized, ion mobility can provide valuable information for the food industry that was not previously known. By elucidating the complex molecular components of sweeteners within complex food commodities, IMS-MS may help to identify natural sweeteners, authenticate their route of origin and help develop new flavor profiles. 

Novel strategies for profiling steviol glycosides

An analysis of steviol glycosides in food has emphasized the value of UPLC-IMS-MS for screening food products. At the time of the research performed, stevia (E 960) was classified as being comprised of steviol and ten steviol glycosides (rebaudioside A to F, dulcoside A, stevioside, rubusoside, and steviolbioside). Using ion mobility, all components were distinguished with collision cross section (CCS) values, a complimentary distinguishing characteristic that is used in conjunction with other experimental parameters to confidently identify components in complex mixtures. 

Importantly there are 3 isomeric pairs in the eleven constituents of stevia E 960. Using conventional tandem mass spectrometry, there would be a reliance upon complex fragmentation rules and ratios when the isomer pairs have the same product ions. Using ion mobility CCS values, each pair of isomers could be differentiated.

In addition to CCS values, ion mobility effectively provides a second dimension of separation and deconvolutes sample complexity. By distinguishing shape, isomeric species were separated that would not be visible using conventional mass spectrometry, highlighting the immense potential of the technology for similar studies.  

As a result of the remarkable power it lends for analysis, UPLC-IMS-MS has been used across multiple application areas, including natural products, food additives and food safety. The research has been illustrated in peer reviewed publications and application notes, enabling a greater insight into the successful application of ion mobility.  

Helping develop the Valentine’s Day treats of the future

Considering that steviol glycosides are significantly sweeter than sugar, and that it can be difficult to distinguish between steviol glycoside isomers in foodstuffs and beverages, there is great potential for investigating further with UPLC-IMS-MS to determine the chemical constituents that will enhance flavor. But stevia research is just one example of the application of UPLC-IMS-MS for the evaluation of food and drink products, including your favorite Valentine’s Day treats. The box of chocolates you pick for your loved one in future may well be produced with natural sweeteners that have been screened using the power of ion mobility.

Further reading:

  • A Novel Strategy to Screen and Profile Steviol Glycosides of Natural Sweeteners in Food Using ionKey/MS Ion Mobility Mass Spectrometry (App Note)
  • Enhancing analysis specificity and deconvolution of natural products using a positive mode ion mobility mass spectrometry library (App Note)
  • Exploring the Complexity of Steviol Glycosides Analysis Using Ion Mobility Mass Spectrometry. Michael McCullagh, David Douce, Els Van Hoeck and Severine Goscinny. Anal. Chem. 2018, 90, 4585−4595.
  • Use of ion mobility mass spectrometry to enhance cumulative analytical specificity and separation to profile 6‐C/8‐Cglycosylflavone critical isomer pairs and known–unknowns in medicinal plants. Michael McCullagh, Cintia Alessandra Matiucci Pereira and Janete Harumi Yariwake. Phytochemical Analysis. 2019;1–13.
  • Investigations into the performance of travelling wave enabled conventional and cyclic ion mobility systems to characterise protomers of fluoroquinolone antibiotic residues Michael McCullagh, Kevin Giles, Keith Richardson, Sara Stead and Martin Palmer. Rapid Commun Mass Spectrom. 2019;1–11.
  • Towards the Use of Ion Mobility Mass Spectrometry Derived Collision Cross Section as a Screening Approach for Unambiguous Identification of Targeted Pesticides in Food. S. Goscinny, M. McCullagh, J. Far, E. De Pauw and G. Eppe. Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom. 2019;1–15.