Emerging Plant Technologies Help Processors Make Better Beverages

From micro-encapsulation to pulsed light, technology is providing processors with the tools needed to produce superior liquid foods.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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When disco was king, "beverages" connoted soft drinks and bottled water came in 5-gallon carboys. Today, the market offers many more options, whether a person wants a thirst quencher, a nutritional drink or a temporary pick-me-up.

Delivering on the promise and potential of liquid refreshments poses new challenges not always successfully met by manufacturers. A case in point is beverages with nutritional enhancements, a category that includes drinks fortified with omega-3 fatty acids. Turbidity and oxidation can undermine the healthy-drinking objective with off flavors and murky appearance.

Technology doesn't always deliver as promised in overcoming challenges, as Nicole Shute can attest. The marketing manager for Hormel Foods Corp.'s specialty products division is trying to help a processor overcome problems encountered with a milk beverage fortified with EPA and DHA fatty acids. The product has not been well received, and Hormel has stepped in to try and solve the puzzle by applying its micro-encapsulation process, which was developed in conjunction with Virun Technologies.

The Austin, Minn., specialty products division debuted its shelf-stable omega-3 ingredients for still beverages three years ago, which was "a little ahead of the game on this," Shute allows. Fine tuning continued and a trickle of commercial products "with more substantial (health) claims" began to surface a year ago.

At this July's IFT Expo in Chicago, Hormel featured its Fuxions line for clear waters, fortified juices and other functional beverages. Commercial applications include Bang!, a muscle builder that delivers "sub-micron active compounds" that "go to work faster and hit your muscles harder than any drink on the planet," claims its manufacturer, VPS/Redline, Weston, Fla.

According to Virun Technologies' Philip Bromley, ingredient particles as small as 5 nanometers are enrobed with vitamin E. They are shelf stable in solution for a year and are tolerant of aseptic thermal treatment. The vitamin E coating is not absorbed into the blood stream, maximizing the bioavailability of the active ingredient. He says claims regarding heart health, brain health and defense against Alzheimer's and dementia can be made. "All the hard work is done," says Bromley, "now we're flourishing."

Whatever buzz Fuxion generated on the show floor was matched in IFT's scientific presentations by pulsed electric fields (PEF), a pasteurization technology best suited to beverages without particulates. PEF has languished in university labs for the past decade, but it is emerging in Europe with a push from DIL, the German Institute of Food Technology. DIL optimized the nonthermal, continuous PEF process before licensing the technology to ELEA, which in the last nine months has helped commission about a dozen Elcrack units capable of pasteurizing 5,000 liters an hour.

When juice manufacturers were considering options to meet FDA-mandated 5-log reductions under HACCP, PEF was promoted as an option, particularly for natural juices. It also has been shown to be an effective extraction aid. Genesis Juice in Eugene, Ore., applied PEF, but when the firm ceased operations in 2007, PEF use became dormant.

A research resurgence in recent years has pushed the number of academic studies of PEF to about 1,000 published papers, and the scientific community is doing what it can to encourage broader applications.

"Commercial adoption has been incredibly slow," concedes Michael Kempkes, an electrical engineer and vice president at Diversified Technologies Inc., a Bedford, Mass., defense contractor and the only U.S.-based fabricator of PEF units for commercial use. But interest in Europe is buoying the academic community, which is beginning to focus on more practical impediments to broader use.

Recalling consumer backlash to irradiation,  Dietrich Knorr, a professor at Berlin University of Technology, recommended adopting the term "micro pulse" when discussing PEF. When applied in German focus groups, "consumer acceptance was not negative" when that phrase was used, according to Knorr.

Heartbeat of the plant

Pumps provide the pulse for fluid transfer. They are essential components of beverage manufacturing, and there are almost as many types to choose from as there are beverages to be made. Matching the pump to the application often drives quality outcomes.

Centrifugal pumps are the go-to option for many processors, though cavitation, impeller wear and corrosion inside the pump can render them less than ideal for fluids meant for human consumption. They typically operate at 1,800-3,600 RPMs, imparting considerable energy into a product, points out Pete Ciorroco, business field manager-food & beverage for Netzsch Inc., Exton, Pa.

Rotary lobe pumps provide sanitary design and CIP compatibility, making them attractive to food companies, but in some applications, the best solution is the progressing/progressive cavity pump, he adds. "A progressing cavity pump is looked at as a niche product to resolve issues with other pumps." Operating speeds under 500 RPMs are typical, and very little slip occurs. Sanitary versions certified by 3A can move up to 300 gallons per minute. Product handling is extremely gentle. "We can pump grapes right off the de-stemmer and won't crush the seed," says Ciorroco.

Another gentle-handling option is the eccentric disc pump. Craft brewer Todd Haug of the Twin Cities' Surly Brewing Co. rejected centrifugal pumps out of hand because of the pulsation that accompanies slip, and his peers discouraged the use of rotary lobes because of maintenance issues. Low shear and elimination of pulsation led to selection of the Mouvex C-series eccentric disc pump, which provides enough suction to evacuate yeast and other sediment from tanks without succumbing to cavitation. The absence of mechanical seals prevents air and subsequent oxidation from impacting the product.

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