In a con­ver­sa­tion over lunch with some olive oil pro­duc­ers, the topic of Near Infrared (NIR) based meth­ods of analy­sis came up, as a sub­sti­tute for stan­dard “wet chem­istry” lab pro­ce­dures. Folks around the table expressed dis­be­lief on NIR results. In their opin­ion, they were no sub­sti­tutes for “wet bench” meth­ods.

It was then up to me, a man­ager of a lab not using NIR, to counter-​argue that NIR ana­lyt­i­cal pro­ce­dures have value and ben­e­fits that must be rec­og­nized: expe­di­ency, cou­pled with user and envi­ron­men­tal friend­li­ness and lower costs.

Generally speak­ing, lab cus­tomers are unaware of the waste that chem­istry lab­o­ra­to­ries gen­er­ate, and the care required for han­dling and stor­ing flam­ma­ble and dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals. This is pre­cisely what food and oil pro­cess­ing plants must avoid. By imple­ment­ing qual­ity con­trol with NIR-​based meth­ods which require no chem­i­cals, these plants sub­stan­tially reduce haz­ard expo­sure.

Concerns about safety and the envi­ron­ment drive cur­rent efforts to switch to new meth­ods that require either fewer chem­i­cals, or that use chem­i­cals that are less dan­ger­ous to han­dle and store.

This “green­ing” of lab­o­ra­tory meth­ods was recently dis­cussed topic at the International Olive Council (IOC) chemists’ meet­ing in Madrid. Can older meth­ods using unhealthy sol­vents like hexane be updated by using less haz­ardous sol­vents such as isooc­tane? (Note that chem­i­cal waste is still being gen­er­ated, but the over­all haz­ard decreases.)

There are numer­ous exam­ples of green­ing in the lab­o­ra­tory and diag­nos­tic world. In the ’90s, mol­e­c­u­lar biol­ogy labs replaced radioac­tive isotope-​based tech­niques with chemi­lu­mi­nes­cent detec­tion. Our den­tists now use dig­i­tal X‑rays that avoid sol­vents for film devel­op­ment. Likewise, our dig­i­tal cam­eras bypass the need for chem­i­cals in film pro­cess­ing.

Moreover, with the devel­op­ment of new micro assays, oil chem­istry tests could be minia­tur­ized to a scale where instead of hun­dreds of mil­li­liters of sol­vents, a few will suf­fice. Let’s stay tuned as to how far the IOC will go on this green road. We will all ben­e­fit from their efforts.


Liliana Scarafia is a prin­ci­pal at Agbiolab, an inde­pen­dent lab­o­ra­tory help­ing olive grow­ers, millers, and han­dlers to pro­duce qual­ity olive oil.

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