There's no doubt that consumer demand for premium foods is having a significant impact on the food processing industry. Food manufacturers are scrambling to produce fresh, clean-label products to keep up with market enthusiasm.
But the push for premium doesn't only impact food processors. Companies that make equipment for use in food processing must also design new products with premium quality food in mind. While consumers in the past may have been happy to find, say, the strawberries in their yogurt in slurry-like condition, now they want to see fruit that looks like fruit. And the same mixer that made an excellent slurry may not be suited for gentler handling.
DCI, Inc., a premier supplier of stainless steel processing equipment to the dairy and beverage industries, has witnessed these changes firsthand. We spoke to Alison Legatt, Sales Project Specialist with DCI, about some of the ways the company has innovated its product design to better handle a premium product.
In this article, we'll take a quick look at how consumer demand for premium foods is affecting the food processing industry. Then we'll zoom in on how equipment throughout the manufacturing process is rising to these new demands.
A Premium Moment
The number one food trend that Legatt has witnessed during her time with DCI is the rising emphasis on freshness. Especially on the west coast, Legatt has seen the number of cooler cases stocked with non-shelf-stable hummuses, salsas, and dips skyrocket. Across the board, consumers want clean-label foods with fewer synthetic ingredients.
The numbers back up Legatt's observations. In a previous article, we noted that as of May 2015 premium brands made up over 10% of the dollar share across food and beverage sales in the United States.
For consumers, “premium” is often synonymous with “less processed.” They believe, rightfully, that a less processed fruit or vegetable retains more nutrients. But this consumer desire also has an aesthetic dimension. A product feels healthier if the fruits and vegetables it contains remain truer to their original form in color, shape, and texture. Including visible pieces of fruits and vegetables offers a sense of transparency about ingredients.
This trend toward ingredient integrity has shown up in products from granola bars to yogurt to baby food. Beech-Nut organic baby food even assures consumers in its marketing materials that it's processed using “just gentle cooking,” in order to maintain ingredients as closely as possible to their original form.
Indeed, even if they don't know the ins and outs of food processing, consumers intuitively sense that the more rigorous the manufacturing process, the less likely their ingredients are to look like they came straight from the garden. So what products have equipment manufacturers developed to keep the ingredient optics garden-fresh?
Gentle Handling from Start to Finish
When an ingredient is transformed from its pure to packaged form, it can go through the gamut of vigorous processes: heating, cooling, agitation, reshaping, and more. Below, we'll take a look at some products and technologies that equipment manufacturers and food scientists use to protect product integrity throughout the manufacturing process.
Heating and Cooling
DCI developed its standardized products with gentle handling in mind. Alison Legatt extols the virtues of the VARO HPT, which is essentially, according to Legatt, “a giant pressure cooker.”
The VARO has several features that make it well suited for premium processing.
First, its horizontal design allows for more even weight distribution of product than in vertical tanks. Ingredients that pass through a horizontal system are more likely to stay intact.
The VARO also cuts down on processing time significantly. Its unique coil agitator, which also contains the heating and cooling element, increases the heat transfer surface, thus improving heating and cooling efficiency. While the VARO heats or cools, it mixes gently enough “to keep the shape and structure of the product intact.”
Some alteration to a product during the heating process is, of course, inevitable. But what if that change was reversible? With a real eye to the demands of premium-hungry consumers, the VARO offers an optional “aroma recovery unit,” which recaptures aromas lost during evaporation and recycles them back into the product.
The agitation or mixing process can, understandably, put food products through the wringer. Equipment manufacturer Alfa Laval has honed its “right sizing” technology to develop mixers that operate at maximum efficiency and maintain product integrity.
The impeller blades in Alfa Laval's ALS side-mounted agitators with EnSaFoil impeller maximize the surface area of blade-product contact, thus blending more uniformly. This process minimizes stress from shearing, and reduces damage to the product. Ultimately, this technology can maintain piece integrity by ensuring that “sensitive solids remain properly suspended in food products,” rather than being blended to oblivion.
Sterilization and Pasteurization
In addition to efficient handling of product, food safety is of utmost concern to everyone in the industry. As a result, food safety technologies are also adapting to the demands of the premium foods market.
Commercial food processing has long relied on thermal treatments to destroy bacteria and other potential sources of spoilage. But traditional sterilization is performed at such high heat that a product's nutritional value is compromised. Pasteurization, which aims to destroy only the most harmful bacteria, occurs at lower temperatures.
Now food scientists are looking to bring down pasteurization temperatures even further. The most prevalent of these new technologies is High Pressure Processing (HPP).
According to a 2014 article from FoodProcessing.com, HPP uses cold water at very high pressure “to essentially squeeze the life out of microbes and viruses without affecting the food itself.” HPP doesn't just improve shelf life and maintain product color, texture, and nutritional value. It also reduces the need for ingredients like salt, vinegar, and citric acid, traditionally used to aid preservation. Thus, HPP not only maintains ingredient integrity, but also goes a long way toward ensuring cleaner labels.
HPP technology has seen successful applications in fruits and vegetables, meats, beverages, and more. Today's HPP vessels hold up to 525 liters and are guaranteed for 100,000 cycles, and around 200 HPP machines are currently operating in North America.
In the beverage industry, specifically, microwave technology is another gentle sterilization up-and-comer. Microwave processing systems from companies like Aseptia and Industrial Microwave Systems heat beverages using “volumetric” rather than traditional convective heating. Like HPP, this process eliminates the need for preservatives without sacrificing natural color, flavor, or nutrient content — including “the antioxidants, proteins and other components that people are willing to pay a premium to get.”
And the above categories of equipment and technology are only the tip of iceberg when it comes to gentle handling. Equipment manufacturers are innovating in the realms of pumping, dehydration, cutting/dicing, and more, with product integrity in mind.
Averting Challenges, Looking Forward
As with any innovations in equipment and technology, the results may sound great. But what barriers exist to implementation? And what challenges arise?
Affordability, as always, is a key issue. When is the outlay worth it?
In the area of HPP, at least, the question of affordability is becoming less daunting. FoodProcessing.com reports that operating costs are declining as the technology becomes increasingly popular. And a growing number of industrial-scale HPP machines are operated by tollers who accept product on a fee-for-service basis. This arrangement provides a more affordable solution for companies that wish to take advantage of this premium-friendly technology without doling out for the equipment on their own.
There's also the issue of throughput. Do gentler technologies allow for the throughput necessary for maximum efficiency?
According to Legatt, in the era of premium foods, that might no longer be as relevant of a question. Premium food processors increasingly are producing more products in smaller batches. And the benefits of gentler handling — fewer damaged products, greater product integrity — temper the need for higher throughput.
Finally, in the case of certain ingredients, maintaining 100% product integrity — original shape, color, texture, and nutritional value — is always going to be a losing battle. Legatt cites raspberries as the most difficult ingredient to keep whole throughout the manufacturing process. Because they are, essentially, already comprised of little pieces, “there's no way you're going to put in a raspberry and have it come out a raspberry.”
Ideally, with all the developments in gentle handling technology, and more sure to come, even raspberries can maintain their nutritional value, color, and some degree of texture. In the ever-growing frontier of premium foods, one has to agree that three out of four isn't bad.