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.
Higher temp, lower time
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.
An emerging foodservice market, he says, is high-end teas in aseptic packaging. Purpac’s ability to manipulate specifications of the water components helps formulators optimize and deliver consistent top-quality tea to meet the growing consumer interest in the health benefits of tea.
The stock market
Stock making — whether vegetable, beef and veal, fish or lobster — is fraught with time, labor and safety issues, making it an expensive luxury for restaurants. The preparation entails thawing frozen roasted bones in a kettle, simmering 4-6 hours or overnight with chopped vegetables and herbs and spices, straining, rapid cooling to prevent microbial growth and then refrigeration. The process is highly susceptible to contamination and waste.
Reconstituted stocks and concentrated paste alternatives tend to be high in salt and preservatives; frozen reductions tend to have caramelized taste; reconstituted powders taste like commercial instant soups.
Dale’s Kitchen developed Stock-in-a-Box because stock-making is a difficult and time-consuming process for restaurant operators.
Charles Dale, founder of Denver-based Dale’s Kitchen (www.daleskitchen.com), developed Stock-in-a-Box to address this unmet operational need of restaurateurs – cost-effective, quality stocks.
Large batches of all-natural stocks are prepared in a commissary, where they are strained, flash-sterilized, flash-cooled and vacuum-packed aseptically in high barrier polypropylene bags. A patented one-way valve retains sterility even once opened, the bags are impervious to contamination and the surrounding carton prevents damage while making it convenient for carrying, stacking and storage.
“Aseptic stock-making shifted the attention to the commissary and sterile packaging,” says Dale. “The finished products are stackable, convenient to use when needed, and need refrigeration only when opened.” Such products have become destination items at club stores for many caterers and small restaurateurs, as well as being immensely popular with larger foodservice operations. In addition to taste and quality, these stocks do not contain any additives as processing aids or preservatives.
The absence of preservatives and additives is one of the greatest side benefits of aseptic processing, yielding substantial benefits for all points in the value chain. Food manufacturers can package even the most sensitive of ingredients and lock in flavor and freshness for months. The cost and consumer disdain of flavor enhancers and preservatives is gone. Distributors realize tremendous cost savings from the lack of refrigeration and long shelf lives (up to 10 months). At the destination — restaurant, casino, hotel or cafeteria — the unopened products may be stored ambient without competing for precious refrigerator space.
Katsu-sai — maintaining natural power
Aseptic processing stresses tomato products less than traditional canning does, according to officials at Parmalat S.p.A. (www.parmalat.com). They claim to deliver more nutrients as well as natural taste, color and texture in their processed Pomi Italian foodservice tomato products. For chefs this means the taste of fresh tomatoes throughout the year without the uncertainty, labor or price.
Kagome makes a zesty pizza sauce for foodservice using only sweet vine-ripened tomatoes accented with garlic, oregano, and basil. The taste is comparable to any made-from-scratch sauce in both color and flavor, they claim. In keeping with Katsu-Sai — a Japanese guiding principle to respect the natural power of fruits and vegetables and neither improve nor take anything away — Kagome uses reverse osmosis and other proprietary processes to extract the juice of tomatoes. The processes retain the colors, flavors and phytonutrients of tomatoes that may get cooked out in higher-temperature processes.
Kagome also aseptically packs juices in plastic bottles, offering consumers true-to-nature flavor of the vegetables without any flavor addition. Plastic bottles are generating tremendous excitement as the newest form of aseptic packaging.
Aseptic processing has entered the gourmet restaurant sector with the development of hollandaise sauce, alfredo sauce and crème brulée. Chef Creations (www.chefcreations.com), Orlando, Fla., worked closely with Tetra Pak to develop aseptic, ready-to-use formats of these complicated preparations to help establishments serve gourmet products with minimum prep time.
The production of these sauces entailed reformulation and backward engineering from Chef Creation recipes. Egg — the main ingredient in hollandaise sauce and crème brulée — was selected in terms of its composition and functionality so the gel-like crèmes would maintain their consistency until poured into a serving dish for the final heating or blazing step. However, the characteristics of the yolks had to be carefully specified to ensure sustained emulsification during storage without the use of industrial emulsifiers such as mono- and diglycerides (derived from the partial hydrolysis of fats) or polysorbate 80 (the sorbitan ester of oleic acid) for additional functionality. A nitrogen flush removed all oxygen from the package to prevent oxidation of the egg and cream.
A bit of culture
A technological breakthrough enabling aseptic addition of probiotic strains during final steps of filling has opened the door for probiotic beverages in restaurants. The addition of friendly bacteria to acidic beverages was a major technical hurdle, according to Hans Christian Bejder, probiotics marketing manager at Milwaukee-based culture supplier Chr. Hansen (www.chr-hansen.com). But a new, flexible aseptic dosing system from Tetra Pak allows the addition of bacteria in an enclosed environment without contamination from the outside. Several juice and dairy companies are in advanced talks with Chr. Hansen about developing probiotic juices and cultured dairy products for the restaurant industry.
Cottage cheese, a popular diet order in restaurants, offers great margins when served customized with toppings. But its short shelf life and the design of the traditional containers is cumbersome for chefs. That is, until Lyons Ingredient Div. (www.lyonsmagnus.com), Fresno, Calif., adopted aseptic processing to ensure longer shelf life of cultured cottage cheese. The company also uses a one-way flow mechanisms to prevent back-contamination. Aseptic fruit or salsa allows for safe and easy customization of cottage cheese and does away with the need for hydrocolloid stabilizers and texturizers.
Aseptic and extended shelf life technologies are changing how Campbell Soup Co. (www.campbellsoup.com), Camden, N.J., makes its signature products. An industry–government–university consortium led by SIG Combibloc (www.sig.biz) won FDA acceptance of a method for aseptically processing foods containing finite-size particulates. The result was Campbell’s Select soups.
Textured particulates also are important for higher-end smoothies. “Superior taste and the perception that juice is good food has helped sustain the halo effect of the smoothie category,” but so has the maintenance of real fruit pieces, according to Alan Williams, chief tasting officer at Maui Beverages (www.mauibeverages.com), Danvers, Mass. Williams credits aseptic processing for not developing the “jammy” taste of hot-filled ingredients used in competitors’ smoothies.
It was a long time in coming, but the FDA recently approved the aseptic bottling of low-acid foods, including milk. Dallas-based, Morningstar Foods (www.morningstarfoods.com), a Dean Foods subsidiary, and Jasper Products (www.jasperproducts.com) of Joplin, Mo., were among the first dairies to produce single-serve milk bottles, which are becoming a hit in vending, foodservice and quick-serve restaurants. Aseptic milk can be shipped and stored on-site without refrigeration and its six-month shelf life far outdistances that of fresh milk.
Only a few years ago, HP Hood (www.hphood.com) was a relatively small regional dairy based in Chelsea, Mass. In 2000 it built its first plant outside the Boston area, in Winchester, Va., specifically to produce aseptically packed products and immediately won a huge co-packing contract from Nestle. Now Nesquik flavored milk and Nestle Coffee-Mate, as well as Lactaid, Stonyfield Farm Organic Milk, Southern Comfort Eggnog and Hood Carb Countdown are produced there in aseptic bottles. And Hood is now a $2.3 billion company.
Portability with healthy attributes is the holy grail for any food product. More than three-fourths of milk drinkers are children under the age of 12, and much of their consumption these days is purchased in drive-through or carryout restaurants and is consumed in moving vehicles.
Horizon Organic (www.horizonorganic.com), Boulder. Colo., figured organic would be a key addition to the paradigm, so it developed an aseptically processed line of flavored milk products. “Organic Milk-on-the-Moo-ve” is now found everywhere from Starbucks stores to vending machines in schools and work places. “The demand for selling liquid dairy products through vending machines is phenomenal growth,” according to Andrew Dun, director of global food service at Tetra Pak. “The vending channel, originally designed to handle shelf-stable items like soft drinks, candy and snacks, was not suitable for perishable beverages until aseptic shelf-stable milk was developed.”
Single-serve coffee creamers have been shelf-stable for a while. Now Goodwest Industries (www.goodwest.com), Parkerford, Pa., is supplying the coffee counters of convenience stores and institutional foodservice channels with large dispensers of aseptically packaged cream to lower the cost and eliminate the waste of the smaller creamer cups.