Food for human consumption and animal feedstuffs contain a variety of mono-, di-, oligo-, and polysaccharides with different
functions. In this article, specific liquid chromatographic (LC) systems (column, mobile phase, and detector) that are used
to determine different carbohydrates in food and feed matrices are described. Cation-exchange columns with different cation
counter ions (Na
, and Pb
) in combination with a refractive index detector have been widely used for the analysis of mono-, di-, and oligosaccharides
for many years. Currently high performance anion exchange chromatography with pulsed amperometric detection (HPAEC–PAD) is
often applied in these analyses. Hydrophilic interaction liquid chromatography (HILIC) with mostly aqueous organic mobile
phases combined with mass spectrometric detection is a very powerful tool for both the qualitative and quantitative analyses
of complex carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are one of the most abundantly distributed constituents in living nature. Together with fat and protein, carbohydrates
are a major food constituent. Food and feed contain a broad variety of different carbohydrates as mono-, di-, oligo-, and
polysaccharides. In Figure 1 an overview is given of the different carbohydrates that can be present in food and feed. The
different categories of carbohydrates have a variety of functions in food products, such as: (i) A source of energy, (ii)
a sweetener, (iii) for viscosity and texture, (iv) a fat replacer, (v) dietary fibre, and (vi) as a prebiotic. The content
of the different carbohydrates in our food is of course related to their functionality. For example, digestible carbohydrates
such as sugars, starch, and malto-oligosaccharides, and which are important for the energy content of the food product, are
usually major constituents with concentration levels ranging from a very small percent to over 50%. Alternatively, carbohydrates
that are important for the viscosity and texture of a food product are normally present at low concentration levels, ranging
from ≤ 0.1% (for carrageenan) to about 5% (for a starch-based thickener). Dietary fibres (by EU  and Codex definition 
non-digestible carbohydrates with a DP ≥ 3) are mainly present in vegetables, fruits, nuts, and cereal products. Meat, milk,
and eggs do not contain dietary fibre. Usually the dietary fibre content in food products ranges from 0–10% depending on the
product. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) definition of 2007 (3), prebiotics
are non-viable food components that confer a health benefit on the host associated with modulation of the microbiota in the
intestinal track. Common prebiotics include inulin, fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), soya-oligosaccharides,
xylo-oligosaccharides, pyrodextrins, isomalto-oligosaccharides, and lactulose.
Figure 1: Schematic overview of the different carbohydrates in human food and animal feed.
Both qualitative and quantitative characterization of the different carbohydrates present in food and feed are very important
to ensure the correct labelling of the product concerning the digestible carbohydrates content (part of the energetic value),
dietary fibre, and prebiotic content.
In addition, the carbohydrate characterization (both qualitative and quantitative) of raw materials for manufacturing the
different (non starch polysaccharide) food ingredients is essential for a good food manufacturing process.
Liquid Chromatography of Carbohydrates
Detectors: Liquid chromatography (LC) is a very well-established technique for the separation and determination of carbohydrates. The
bottleneck in the LC analysis of carbohydrates is the detection system. Because carbohydrates do not show a significant radiation
absorption in the normal UV and visible range, UV–vis detectors are not appropriate in carbohydrate analyses unless they are
derivatized with UV-adsorbing substituents. The most applied LC detectors, particularly in routine analysis, are the refractive
index (RI) detector in combination with isocratic separations, the pulsed amperometric detector (PAD), and the evaporative
light scattering detector (ELSD), which can both be applied with gradient elution LC systems. In addition, mass spectrometric
(MS) techniques are becoming more commonly applied for carbohydrate characterizations in combination with LC.
Liquid Chromatographic Systems: Various LC systems have been described in the literature. The choice of the chromatographic system depends upon the required
level of structural details (for example, total monosaccharides or separation between the monosaccharides [glucose, galactose,
mannose, and fructose]), type of glycosidic bonding (α, β, or 1à4, 1à1, or 1à6), concentration level of the carbohydrate,
and, of course, the sample matrix. In this mini review we will discuss three chromatographic systems: Cation-exchange chromatography;
high performance anion-exchange chromatography; and hydrophobic interaction chromatography. These LC techniques are very important
for the analysis of carbohydrates in food and feed.
Cation-Exchange Chromatography with RI Detection: For a long time LC separations of carbohydrates have been performed on strong cation exchange resins in the Ca++ form at elevated temperatures, applying an aqueous solution of 50 ppm calcium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (Ca-EDTA)
as the mobile phase and RI detection (4). For all carbohydrates the refractive index increment (dn/dc) has the same value,
which means that the sensitivity of the RI detector is the same for all carbohydrates irrespective of DP value or monosaccharide
composition. This facilitates the quantitation of unknown carbohydrate peaks in the chromatograms. A severe drawback of RI
detectors is that they can only be applied in combination with isocratic separations.
At room temperature the mutarotation of many reducing sugars is low. As a result, the separation of a mixture of carbohydrates
at room temperature on a cation-exchange column will result in a needlessly complicated chromatogram with double peaks or
peaks with shoulders because of the (incomplete) separation of the α- and β-anomers of the respective sugars. Increasing the
temperature increases the mutarotation by a factor of approximately 2.5 for every 10 °C rise in temperature. As a result of
fast mutarotation at elevated temperatures, the α- and β-anomers of the respective carbohydrates elute together in one relatively
sharp peak (5). Mutarotation is also strongly catalyzed by high pH values in alkaline solutions. This alkaline catalytic effect
on the mutarotation is applied in high-performance anion-exchange chromatography, which will be discussed later.
The separation mechanism is twofold: Firstly, it is based on a complex formation between the hydroxyl groups of the carbohydrates
and the immobilized Ca++ ions on the resin (ligand exchange mechanism); and secondly, it is based on size-exclusion effects.
The complex formation between the hydroxyl groups in the carbohydrates and the immobilized counter ions in the cation-exchange
resin depends on the conformation of the hydroxyl groups (equatorial or axial) and the carbohydrate itself (chair or boat
conformation), and on the specific cation counter ions. H+, Na+, K+, Ag+, Ca++, or Pb++ are used as counter ions. Na+ and K+ form no complexes with the hydroxyl groups in the carbohydrates. Applying a column in the Na+ or K+ form instead of a column in the Ca++ form results in a loss of selectivity for the different monosaccharides and polyols. Almost all monosaccharides and polyols
co-elute with each other. Columns in the Na+ or K+ form are mostly applied for the separation of (malto) oligosaccharides. For the separation of different monosaccharides,
cation-exchange columns in the Pb++ form are frequently applied. As a result of the differences in structural conformation of the hydroxyl groups in the various
monosaccharides, the respective monosaccharides form complexes with the immobilized counter ions in the cation exchange resin
with different stability constants, resulting in different retention times of the sugars eluting from the chromatographic
The size-exclusion mechanism of the chromatographic separation is strongly affected by the degree of divinylbenzene cross-linking
of the polysterene matrix of the cation-exchange resin. Increased cross-linking decreases the pore size in the resin and therefore
the size-exclusion range of the column. A linear relationship exists between the retention time and the logarithm of the molecular
weight of the eluted malto-oligosaccharides, using a cation exchange column. When applying a 4% cross-linked cation-exchange
resin (in the Na+ form), the size-exclusion effect ranges from DP1 up to about DP7 or DP8 for malto-oligosaccharides. Applying a degree of
cross-linking of 8% decreases the size-exclusion range from DP1 to about DP3 (Figure 2). The benefit of a relatively high
degree of cross-linking is that it results in a more rigid column, which resists higher pressures and therefore can be operated
at higher flow rates, making faster chromatographic run times possible.
Figure 2: The effect of cross-linking the cation-exchange resin on the size-exclusion performance of the separation. (a) 4%
cross-linked polystyrene divinylbenzene cross-linked cation-exchange column (REZEX RNO oligosaccharide column in Na+ form); (b) 8% cross-linked polystyrene divinylbenzene cross-linked cation exchange column (REZEX RNM carbohydrate column
in Na+ form). Mobile phase: Water at 90 °C; Column temperature = 90 °C, RI detection.
Cation-exchange chromatography in combination with RI detection is still a good technique for analyzing simple mixtures of
mono-, di-, and tri-saccharides in relatively clean sample matrices such as fruit juices and beverages. Various cation exchange
columns with different specifications (for example, particle size, degree of cross-linking, and counter ions) can be commercially
obtained from different manufacturers.