Four Breakthrough Technologies in Food Processing

Natural sweeteners, high-pressure pasteurization, resistant starch and robots are modern marvels changing the way we make food.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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Consumers finally had a non-nutritive sweetener made from a plant. But stevia wasn't alone for long. History repeated itself with the arrival of monk fruit extract, also known as luo han guo or Buddha fruit. This China native has been around since at least the 13th century and, like stevia, it adds zero calories and is considered natural.

You never saw it outside of a natural products show until London-based Tate & Lyle made it the company's big announcement at the 2011 IFT Food Expo. Introduced under the name Purefruit, it's actually a refinement of a monk fruit extract supplied by BioVittoria Ltd., a New Zealand company that had been marketing it for a few years and had greatly expanded the fruit's propagation.

BioVittoria successfully proclaimed its Fruit-Sweetness-branded monk fruit concentrate as GRAS in January 2010. The company claims to have locked up 90 percent of the world's supply of monk fruit.

Like Cargill did with stevia, Tate & Lyle supplied BioVittoria's monk fruit to McNeil Nutritionals LLC, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, for Nectresse, a consumer/tabletop sweetener that is in national distribution. That deal is similar to one decades earlier that put Tate & Lyle's sucralose into McNeil's Splenda.

Perhaps hedging its earlier stevia bet, Blue California, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., introduced BlueSweet luo han guo extract. "It's a really good product but has a different profile than stevia," Cecilia McCollum, executive vice president, explained to us in an earlier story.

U.S. Niutang Chemical Inc., Chino, Calif., also has demonstrated samples of a monk fruit sweetener called Fruit20 and Fruit50, denoting the percentages of the key monk fruit sweetening agent.

High-pressure pasteurization

Pasteurization is a wonderful thing – thank you, Louis Pasteur and Nicolas Appert. But being "cooked" has its bad points. Gentleness is not one of the attributes of most heat-pasteurization processes.

Pressure of 87,000 psi may not sound gentle, either, but its effects on the texture of foods is negligible; its impact on pathogens is deadly. That's the kind of pressure applied in high-pressure pasteurization (HPP) systems, which are cold-pasteurizing meats, juices, ready-to-eat meals and other premium food products that would suffer under high-temperature pasteurization.

An HPP system packs packaged food products into torpedo-like cylinders that are moved into water-filled chambers. As the water pressure is raised, microorganisms such as salmonella and listeria are killed by collapsing their cell walls. The food product is largely unaffected. But its packaging must be tough.

It's a more expensive process than retorting, but it's gentle and adds no ingredients (such as antimicrobials), thereby meeting current consumer demands for minimal processing and fewer ingredients.

The Giordano family had been selling food in Philadelphia for more than 100 years, supplying corned beef, roast beef, pastrami and other deli meats. Those delicately cooked meats are susceptible to bacteria, such as listeria. Sure enough, one day in 2005, "We had a single product show up with listeria in Georgia. All told, that incident cost me $4 million," recalls Guy Giordano, president of what is now Vincent Giordano Corp. "I don't even think it was our fault, but there's no way to be sure."

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But he didn't want it ever to happen again. Not for the public health danger. Not for the threat such an incident would pose to keeping the company in his family. So he bought an HPP system from Hiperbaric and helps pay for the machine by treating nearby companies' products as a toll processor.

Girodano's machine holds 420 liters of water in its cylinder, which Giordano claims was the largest available at that time. Up to 500 lbs. of product can be loaded onto the carriers, which travel horizontally into the chamber, where the pressure is created. While food safety is the primary goal, it also extends shelf life – Giordano estimates up to four or five times. The system was up and running in late 2010.

"Meats have traditionally been No. 1, but 'fresh' juices have come on very strong in the past two years," says Jaime Nicolas, director of Hiperbaric North America, Miami, Fla. He's the son of the company founder, who remains in Spain, where the company began and maintains its R&D and manufacturing.

Hormel Natural Choice products – deli meats, bacon, chicken strips and sausages – employ the process and claim "100 percent natural, no preservatives, all-natural taste" on their labels. Hormel was an early adopter of HPP and did much to advance the technology. The company has machines from both Hiperbaric and Avure Technologies.

While Hormel has the volume to rationalize its HPP machines, Giordano in Philadelphia does not. "It's an amazing and reliable technology – but a little expensive," he admits. So he set up a standalone company, Safe Pac as a toll processor to take on as much contract work as possible to pay off the machine.

"It can do deli salads, entrees and side dishes, soups, almost any ready-to-eat food product in a sealed package," he says. He even runs some products for competitors, who want to make an "all-natural, no preservative" claim on their packages. A number of other food processors and contract manufacturers that have invested in HPP machines also are offering toll processing on their systems.

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