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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Breakthrough innovation comes slowly and cautiously to the food and beverage industry. Springing a blonde Oreo on the consuming public is a lot easier, a surer business bet and more acceptable than, say, using radiation to kill pathogens in meat. Or growing a hamburger in a petri dish.

But breakthroughs continue in the R&D centers of both ingredient suppliers and equipment manufacturers. High-intensity sweeteners were unheard of until saccharin was synthesized in 1879 -- although it took another 70 years to come into widespread use, and then it was followed by a slew of sugar substitutes. That's about the same time (the 1950s) that clean-in-place relieved the food industry of disassembly of equipment for sanitizing.

Some seemingly good recent ideas have failed to catch on. No research has shown that irradiation harms food or humans, but try selling that to the general public. Carbon monoxide can keep meat looking fresh longer, but that process got a black eye five or so years ago. Lean finely textured beef could feed a lot of America's undernourished school children, and genetically engineered Golden Rice could save the rest of the world. But all those technologies will have to wait a while longer.

We have identified a handful of technologies that have persevered through some initial resistance and are starting to have an impact on both the product development and plant operations sides of the food and beverage industry.

'Natural' sweeteners: Stevia and monk fruit

Until recently, American consumers had schizophrenic feelings about non-nutritive sweeteners. They knew obesity was becoming America's No. 1 health problem and that added sugars played a key role. But they distrusted "chemicals" with names like acesulfame potassium and benzoic sulfilimine (saccharin). As is so often the case, the damning scientific studies got more press than the ones that deemed the ingredients safe.

However, 30 or so years ago, some consumers were using "botanicals" such as stevia leaf and monk fruit extracts to sweeten their pots. Stevia had been used for centuries in its native Paraguay, and Japan has considered it safe since 1970. The plant extract hit the big time when America's two biggest beverage companies teamed (separately) with two of the biggest sweetener companies to petition the FDA to pronounce stevia extract rebaudioside-A as a safe ingredient for foods and beverages. (Jim May who founded Wisdom Natural Brands claims a much earlier generally recognized as safe (GRAS) affirmation for his stevia extract.)

FDA's acceptance of that GRAS claim came at the very end of 2008. It was a big event for the food & (especially) beverage industry, says Mark Brooks, global business director of Truvia consumer products for Cargill Inc., Wayzata, Minn. "Not many brand-new ingredient products come on the market."

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It probably doesn't need to be said anymore, but Truvia is Cargill's consumer/tabletop stevia-based sweetener – and is quite a success story. And Cargill was one of those original petitioners, teamed with Coca-Cola Co. The other petition was from Whole Earth Sweetener Co., a unit of Merisant Co., and PepsiCo.

The 2008 "non-objection" from FDA came after six years of development and consumer research at Cargill, which confirmed demand for a natural sweetener and ingredient suppliers' ability to provide a palatable ingredient. "We've invested more than 80,000 man-hours into its development," Brooks notes.

Even so, stevia was not an overnight success. "At that time, no food formulators had learned about stevia when they were in college," he continues. It was not a drop-in replacement for sugar or any non-nutritive sweeteners, so formulations needed to be adjusted. Other hurdles included convincing processors they needed to change sweeteners, weighing the risk vs. the perceived rewards to consumers, and if consumers would understand the new ingredient. "But consumers caught on very quickly," he said.

Stevia has its own taste profile, as any sweetener does. There is some bitterness, especially a licorice-like taste. The onset and lingering of sweetness were easily adjusted. But three strategies helped its acceptance.

Cargill's plan was to immediately launch the consumer product, Truvia, with a heavy marketing campaign. The visibility and eventual success of the tabletop product emboldened processors to use stevia in their products. Cargill encouraged co-branding, so many processors carried "sweetened with Truvia" on their packages.

The other two strategies evolved among processors. Most, like Coca-Cola, launched new niche products, such as Sprite Green, warily, not trusting their core brands to the new sweetener. Now, however, some are switching products over to stevia with neither fanfare nor trepidation, they are so comfortable with the sweetener. Brooks says Coca-Cola has changed the core brand Sprite to stevia in much of the world (although not yet in the U.S.).

The other processor strategy was to launch reduced- but not zero-calorie products, such as Tropicana's Trop 50 orange juice. Beverage makers especially had perceived consumer interest in products that carried a little sugar, and stevia does blend well with sucrose.

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