The Hurdles of ‘Clean’ and Better-for-You Snacks

Better-for-you snack manufacturers must clear production hurdles to chase opportunities.

By Carolyn Schierhorn, Contributing Editor

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In the realm of better-for-you snacks, formulation challenges arguably outweigh production difficulties, as Bob Clark, vice president of marketing for Herr Foods, contends. The Nottingham, Pa.-based manufacturer of Herr’s potato chips and other salty snacks puts herculean effort into developing new products that not only leverage consumers’ latest notions about health and wellness, but also taste great, he says.

Nevertheless, for startups rolling out everything from quinoa cookies to sea-salted popped edamame chips and for established manufacturers cautiously debuting “clean label” products, the operational obstacles are many. The shift toward more natural-sounding and nutrient-dense ingredients, the elimination of many preservatives and other feared substances and the pressure to meet new labeling requirements and sundry certification standards can lead to massive capital expenditures and process changes.

It’s no wonder that mission-driven entrepreneurs and big companies alike are turning to contract manufacturers that focus on the dietetic and free-from snack markets. To ensure smoother entry into the evolving sphere of clean labels, many conventional snack food processors also rely on guidance from ingredient and equipment suppliers, notes Chad Rieschl, senior research food technologist for Wayzata, Minn.-based Cargill (www.cargill.com).

“It’s a different space, so there is definitely a learning curve,” says Rieschl, who frequently advises manufacturers on how to work with Cargill’s pea protein isolates and other alternative ingredients in extruded snack products.

Plant-based protein pressures

Given the current rage for plant-based proteins, much of the innovation in extruded and expanded snacks involves incorporating not just pea protein but also chickpea, lentil and other pulse flours into products that are more nutritious than typical cheese or corn puffs.

But manufacturers need to be aware of the operational hurdles before venturing into this space, cautions food scientist and engineer Massoud Kazemzadeh, founder of Clara City, Minn.-based contract manufacturer Kay’s Processing (www.kaysprocess.com) and its branded counterpart, Kay’s Naturals. Kazemzadeh, who previously taught at Texas A&M University and finalized the engineering of a twin-screw high-pressure extruder for Bühler, custom-designs the extrusion equipment he uses in his plant.

“It’s much easier to puff a carbohydrate like starch than to puff or expand a protein,” he notes, explaining that the volumetric mass density of protein macromolecules ranges from 1 million to 2 million Ds compared to about 100,000 to 300,000 Ds for carbohydrates. Kay’s Processing’s twin-screw extruders deliver pressures of up to 3,500 psi, while traditional extruders typically attain pressures of 800 psi to 900 psi, according to Kazemzadeh.

Besides requiring higher pressures to expand, plant-based proteins bring additional handling challenges. “They are difficult to work with; you have to know what you’re doing,” Kazemzadeh says, noting that his company has five years of experience using pea protein. Meanwhile, his other enterprise, 20-year-old Kay’s Naturals, last December introduced the Pass The Peas brand of chickpea flour and pea protein puffed snacks in various flavors.

Agreeing that extruding and expanding plant-based protein can be complicated for the uninitiated, Rieschl insists that established manufacturers can usually reconfigure their existing extrusion equipment to achieve desired results rather than investing millions of dollars in new equipment or contracting with a specialized copacker. Sharing examples of common modifications, he notes that water often needs to be added during the extrusion process with high-protein formulations, sometimes the die opening will need to be changed and sometimes the product will need additional cooling to offset increases in mechanical energy.

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