Innovation is part of Ultima Foods’ DNA, specifically yogurt innovation, a trait that has helped the dairy co-op become Canada’s dominant yogurt manufacturer.
Founded in 1971 by Coopérative Agricole de Granby, a Quebec dairy co-op (now called Agropur), Ultima began operations as the licensed manufacturer and marketer of Yoplait yogurt, filling the role General Mills plays in the U.S.
Innovation is a driver, and the company now produces eight lines of yogurt, including its iögo and Olympic brands. The most distinctive yogurt, however, may be on store shelves next year, when Ultima expects to introduce a shelf-stable version.
“Snacking on the go is one of the big trends,” observes Dan Jewell, vice president-operations at Ultima (www.ultimayog.ca), Longueuil, Quebec, “and portability is key to that.” Non-refrigerated snacks enjoy a big leg up over perishable foods in the portability sweepstakes, and a shelf-stable yogurt would go a long way toward leveraging that advantage.
Microwave drying under vacuum is the enabling technology. Researchers at Vancouver, British Columbia-based EnWave Corp. (www.enwave.net) began working on the yogurt process two years ago, blending yogurt with pre-gelatinized starch before shaping the resulting paste and subjecting it to what EnWave refers to as radiant energy vacuum (REV) technology. According to John Zhang, EnWave’s senior vice president-R&D, heating occurs under 30 millibars of pressure, or 0.435 psi, approximately the atmosphere created by a liquid ring vacuum pump.
REV potentially could lower water’s boiling point to 0°C/32°F, though typically REV evaporates water in the 30°-40°C range, roughly room temperature to body temperature. “During freeze drying, water becomes vapor without going through a liquid state,” explains Zhang. Water activity is below 0.6aW, making even a low-acid product like yogurt shelf-stable.
Assuming packaging has enough integrity to prevent moisture migration and does not allow oxygen to enter and cause rancidity issues, the yogurt should be good for at least a year and possibly more than two, he says.
Eliminating refrigerated distribution is a big advantage in Canadian logistics, given the country’s 4,000-mile southern border and the sparsest population density in the world. Depending on demand, shelf-stable yogurt could be produced at either Ultima Foods’ Granby, Quebec, plant; the Delta, British Columbia, facility; or both.
Ultima recently purchased a 10kW drying unit, a pilot scale version of EnWave's 100kW, 10 magnetron machine most commonly used for industrial-scale production. A 120kW dryer is the largest machine fabricated to date, though company engineers believe scaling up to 240kW is realistic, with a 400kW unit a possibility. They operate in a semi-continuous mode, with vacuum maintained once product is loaded into one of the chambers.
Crunchy cheese snacks
Ultima’s R&D team has been working with REV for nine months. “With the technology, you can pretty much do what you want in terms of taste and texture,” says Jewell, “from chewy to crunchy.” A licensing agreement with EnWave gives the dairy exclusive rights to manufacture and sell shelf-stable yogurt in Canada. An unidentified firm has licensed U.S. rights.
Similar licensing deals for other products are in place, including shelf-stable cheese. The first license was with ND Creations LLP (formerly Nutradried), a Blaine, Wash., food company formed in 2014 and majority owned by EnWave. ND makes and markets Moon Cheese, a puffed cheese snack. Similar products are produced by Gay Lea Foods in Canada, Lake Blue sPA in Chile and Dominant Slice LDA in Portugal. Dominant Slice’s B!t cheese is dried at a temperature lower than 30°C/86°F and has a moisture content of less than 3 percent.
Removing water distorts the price:weight ratio of cheese. On Amazon, packages of Moon Cheese are priced at more than $2 per oz., but it takes 2 oz. of cheese to make 1 oz. of Moon cheese.