Manufacturers Look to Super-Premium Processing to Keep Beverages Safe

Technology is front and center as beverage processors respond to growing demand for fresh, minimally processed products.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Fresh is in, as any juice processor can attest, with the number of juice-based beverages making freshness claims doubling worldwide in the past five years, according to research by Innova Market Insights.

Those products now account for 11 percent of all beverages on the market. Almost a third of the newer launches carry labels touting their preservative-free status, replacing previous standbys like “not from concentrate” (4.9 percent) and “real” (3.2 percent). “Raw” is another up-and-coming descriptor.

Preservatives are a particular no-no in the super-premium segment (products that retail for $9 or more for a 16 oz. bottle). An example is Rawpothecary, a Brooklyn-based juice processor that uses the term “cold-pressed” to describe the high-pressure processing (HPP) it relies on for shelf life in lieu of preservatives. HPP rarely is mentioned on product labels, although increasingly it is the technology of choice.

An even newer kid on the technology block is microwave. Aseptia Technologies and Industrial Microwave Systems both have microwave processing systems that aren’t compatible with solids but work fine with beverages and other pumpable foods. As they drum up processor interest in licensing microwave technology, the companies increasingly are targeting makers of super-premium juices and other beverages in tune with the clean label, no-preservatives demands of health-conscious Americans.

Noting the double-digit growth that has propelled beverages like Evolution and Odwalla in this $800 million-plus category, Aseptia’s Michael Druga, chief technology officer of the Raleigh, N.C., firm, says, “That is the wave we’re trying to leverage. Those drinks are entering the mainstream. It’s more of a trend than a fad.”

Aseptia refers to its sterilization process as volumetric heating, as opposed to the convective heating that is typical. As a fluid is pumped through the unit, it encounters parallel microwave energy that heats the fluid quickly and uniformly, avoiding the burn-on and destruction of nutrients that inevitably occurs when thermal energy must penetrate to a fluid stream’s cold spot, overcooking some of the volume in the process. Natural color and taste are retained, along with the antioxidants, proteins and other components that people are willing to pay a premium to get.

HPP also is a gentle process, Druga allows, but it only pasteurizes the fluid and requires refrigeration. The microwave technology is aseptic, resulting in shelf stability of about one year.

The bulk of today’s beverages are processed with direct steam injection or through plate heat exchangers. Besides destroying some nutrients, those technologies require considerably more energy than microwave, according to Druga. Aseptia owns and operates Wright Foods, a copacker that operates both steam injection and microwave production systems. Because of radiant heat loss in pipes, boiler inefficiency and the phase change that occurs when steam is created, “maybe 45 percent of the energy input is left in your stream for processing,” he says, based on a study at Wright Foods. Microwave, on the other hand, provides 97 percent heat transfer efficiency.

The technology got a boost recently with the introduction of a benchtop version of the microwave heat exchanger from another Raleigh, N.C., firm. Microthermics Inc. fabricated the scaleable lab unit in collaboration with Aseptia. A 20-second hold time is typical, according to David Miles, Microthermics vice president, and the absence of hot surfaces means less fouling and easier maintenance than with steam injection.

Squeeze harder

RTE meat pasteurization remains the bread and butter application for HPP, but premium juices, fortified water, chia seed drinks and other nutritional beverages account for a growing number of uses. The success of Evolution Fresh, the Starbucks-owned juice brand that promotes its use of HPP to retain natural flavors and nutrients, has helped spur interest in HPP.

Today, the nation’s newest HPP toller is exclusively processing natural and organic beverages, although that will change when USDA certification is attained. Denver-based Natural Food Works LLC, a two-year-old copacker specializing in organic foods, began offering HPP tolling in March, adding to competencies in baking, extrusion and dehydration.

“Natural and organic is a natural fit for HPP,” says Annie Hawkins, the firm’s business development manager. “The majority of consumers don’t know what HPP cold pasteurization is, they’re just happy their food doesn’t have preservatives.”

Referring to the Rocky Mountains region as “the mecca of the natural and organic world,” Hawkins says the emergence of “juice cleansing” is pushing in-container pasteurization with HPP to processing’s center stage. Consuming a plate of quinoa for breakfast and carrying a banana for lunch might meet with a nutritionist’s approval, but it’s far less convenient than slugging down a 16 oz. PET bottle of juice from fresh fruits and vegetables with all their nutrients intact.

Juice companies that use hot fill must reformulate to use HPP, but they are doing it, she explains, because “the consumer demand is to eat as fresh as we can, with all the nutrients together.”

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