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By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor | 09/27/2006
Aseptic processing has been a boon to the foodservice channel, enabling both growth and innovation. Foodservice operators face shorter menu development cycles as they juggle labor supply, increased costs, regulatory requirements and new competitors. So they turn to aseptically packaged food products to resolve a number of pressing issues.
Foodservice operators are ordering fewer commodity/ingredient items and more prepared items – less vinegar and more vinaigrette. Pre-made stocks, sauces and bases are the foundation of many signature menu items. Aseptic products can help restaurateurs increase average transaction size and meet the needs of distinct groups of consumers.
Meal components that add value to the finished products and lower the operations bottom line are particularly valued. And the fact that aseptic production yields shelf-stable products that require no freezing or refrigeration (until opening) is a huge bonus.
Aseptic cartons are lightweight and easy on the back. The block shape is space-efficient. The easy-open, easy-pour, and reclosable features – standard in multi-serve aseptic cartons – offer valuable time savings compared to the opening and handling requirements of equivalent size canned products. Aseptic packages are easy to crush when empty and occupy less space in a dumpster.
Contrary to popular myth, aseptic packages are recyclable. Aseptic packages, like paperboard milk cartons, may be recycled at the mill through a simple paper recycling process known as hydrapulping. The hyrapulper blends and agitates aseptic packages for 30-40 mins. until the plastic and foil layers separate from the paper pulp. Repeated rinsing and screening separates the fiber fraction from the thin layers of aluminum and plastic and may be streamed into the production of paper products.
Ultra high-temperature (UHT) processing is crucial to ensure commercial sterility for aseptic, shelf-stable food products and beverages. The processing temperature is higher — often around 275°F — but the time held at that temperature is only 1-5 seconds, rather than sometimes minutes under traditional retorting. Some milk products undergo a similar process, high temperature-short time pasteurization, which heats milk to 161°F for 15 seconds.
Just as important — maybe moreso — is that critical steps of the process must be performed in a sterile environment, from the handling of the package until it is sealed.
Traditional canned or pasteurized liquid food products and beverages that are to be aseptically processed and packaged therefore must undergo reformulation to protect and stabilize the components during UHT processing.
For aseptic steam-injection processes, ingredient volatility should be considered to prevent flashing off of valuable flavoring components during the vacuum cooling process. Formulators may opt to add viscosity-enhancing ingredients to protect the volatile components or simply increase the amount of the flavor compounds to compensate for process-related dissipation. Brian Thane, director of aseptic technology at Tetra Pak Inc., (www.tetrapak.com), Vernon Hills, Ill., suggests aseptic dosing of key ingredients after the aseptic processing portion to address this issue.
New product trends lean toward the application of nutritional and functional ingredients for health benefits. Processors are being requested to aseptically package foods and beverages with omega-3 fatty acids for general health, lutein for eye health, inulin for enhanced digestion and other improved body functions, sucralose in place of sugar as a low-calorie sweetener, whey protein mixes in place of whole milk for reduced fat formulation and antioxidants such as lycopene for better overall health.
“These benefits are more easily achieved through aseptic processing due to its inherent short-time thermal treatment, which preserves more of the beneficial and quality attributes of the components,” Thane says.
Cara Freitas Hanson, sales manager at Kagome Inc. (www.kagomeusa.com), a Foster City, Calif., processor, says although flash heating can affect some sensitive components, in general aseptic processing is milder than the traditional can and retort processing. Reverse osmosis under pressure allows for volume reduction without diminishing the volatiles too much, and the absence of extended heat processing creates a “fresher” flavor in sauces, she says.
Formulators benefit from needing less of the expensive flavor modifiers and potentiators because the food ingredients themselves lend flavor to the finished product. There also is no development of cooked flavors commonly associated with sauces that have been subjected to extensive heat for extended periods.
American Purpac is a contract packager that has specialized in aseptically filled products.
Dave Madden, CEO of American Purpac (www.purpac.com), a Beloit, Wis., contract packer specializing in aseptic filling, sees a definite trend in the “asepticizing” of concentrates and single-strength ingredients for foodservice. Madden notes smoothie formulators are using fewer fillers and extenders such as corn starch, starch derivatives and hydrocolloids as low-cost texturizers and more pulpy fruits and vegetables for developing the coarse sensation associated with fresh, homemade smoothies.
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