Extrusion / Gluten Free / Equipment Products / Fibers, Flours, Grains / Snack Foods

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

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.

Taking aim at acrylamide

Beyond dealing with new ingredients, snack food manufacturers must also grapple with an ever-growing list of demonized chemicals. In the potato chip category, the latest bogeyman is the byproduct acrylamide — a compound produced when cooking potatoes (and other asparagine-heavy vegetables) at high temperatures. Studies have suggested that acrylamide might be carcinogenic to humans in cumulatively high doses.

“There are a number of solutions available to snack manufacturers that can significantly reduce acrylamide without affecting the quality of the final product,” points out Teri Johnson, divisional sales manager for TNA North America (www.tnasolutions.com), Coppell, Texas. “These include pre-processing techniques such as blanching and pulsed electric field (PEF), as well as innovative frying equipment, including multi-stage, vacuum and batch frying.”

In addition to minimizing acrylamide in conventional potato chips, vacuum fryers are “the ideal solution” for producing all sorts of clean label vegetable chips, including organic varieties, according to Johnson. “This process offers the ability to create products with a natural taste and appearance due to low cooking temperatures,” she explains. “Thanks to a much gentler process, the end product upholds the natural qualities of the raw material, including nutritional value and color, without the need for additives or colorants.”

What’s popping?

Some snack manufacturers have adapted existing processes developed for other products to produce better-for-you items. For instance, Liberty, N.Y.-based Ideal Snacks uses a proprietary compression popping system to make low-fat, nutrient-dense chips from extruded pellets. As Gunther Brinkman, the company’s vice president for contract manufacturing, explains, at least 50 percent of the formulation must consist of an expanding starch such as corn, rice or cassava.

“In our process, we compress and heat the ingredients,” he elaborates. “The starch is gelatinizing and the pressure is building; so when we release the pressure, the whole thing pops like a popcorn kernel.”

Other ingredients such as powdered fruit and pulse or ancient grain flour can be added during pellet formulation or later directly into the popping system. “We currently do make products where we just add quinoa, hemp seed, flax seed, sorghum or millet into the popping machine,” Brinkman says. “When the expanding starches pop, they grab onto all of those things and hold them into the chip.”

Having shorter ingredient decks and, especially, limiting the use of preservatives can compromise the shelf life of less-processed snacks while also increasing production costs.

Using preformulated pellets (also known as half-products) is one way to boost the shelf life of expanded snacks. Puffing these pellets into so-called “third-generation” (or 3-G) snacks closer to the time and place of consumption — whether via hot air, frying or microwaving— helps ensure longer-lasting freshness.

“A pellet is shelf-stable for up to a year in its ‘raw’ or unexpanded form,” states J.R. Short Milling Co., a Kankakee, Ill.-based pellet supplier, on its website (www.shortmill.com). “Pellets offer unique economies in shipping because until they are expanded, you are not shipping or storing air.”

A number of snack food processors address shelf stability through packaging technology. Denver-based Oogie’s Snacks, a manufacturer of branded and private label better-for-you popcorn, uses nitrogen flushing and particularly strong seals on its packaging to maximize shelf life.

“Nitrogen fits in with our healthy, natural focus,” says Eric Thier, the company’s president, who emphasizes that that the packaging Oogie’s uses has barriers that are “the highest in the industry.”

Herr Foods for some time has been using metalized film for many of its snack products (including all of its potato chips), not just those that that tout simple and natural ingredients, adds Clark. The foil-like bags help retain nutrients as well as freshness and crispness.

Becoming certifiable

Because many consumers of clean label snacks expect them to be free of gluten and genetically modified ingredients — and because more and more people today actually do suffer from food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities — manufacturers increasingly are jumping through extra hoops to obtain certifications that exceed federal and state regulations.

For example, when products are certified by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), thereby ensuring that they are safe for individuals with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, manufacturers must take specific steps to prevent contamination. These protocols include adhering to equipment-cleaning schedules, documenting that they are followed, and validating their effectiveness with gluten-specific or protein-specific swab tests performed at multiple locations after cleaning.

“Even in facilities that are dedicated to gluten-free production, protocols for preventing contamination of the facility must be in place, including supplier vetting and control of what employees can bring into the plant,” says Laura Allred, regulatory and standards manager for the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), GFCO’s parent organization. Among other requirements, the GFCO Standard mandates that all staff be trained on gluten risks and that employee hygiene protocols be implemented.

“Gluten-free products can have different textures and consistencies that need to be accounted for both in production and packaging,” Allred adds. “While a processor may be able to use the same equipment for processes like shape molding, cutting or packaging, they may find that these processes need to be done under different conditions than they use for gluten-containing products.”

Bright outlook

Through more efficient operations, manufacturers can offset some of the added costs of free-from snack production.

“There are lots of ways processes can be streamlined at every stage of the production line,” Johnson maintains. “For example, in many snack lines, seasoning can be more expensive than the actual base product, so reducing waste at this stage can make a huge difference to overall profitability. In fact, reducing the amount of giveaway through over-seasoning by only 1 percent can reduce the cost per bag by up to 10 percent.”

In addition, technology that captures energy released by one process to fuel another offers further potential for savings, Johnson says. For example, one solution developed by TNA recovers energy from a fryer.

“The hot exhaust gases and steam from the fryer are transferred through a heat exchanger that will produce warm or hot water (between 130° and 194° F),” Johnson explains. “This can then be used for other processes like hot washing.”

Clark, for one, remains enthusiastic about the market potential of clean label snacks such as Herr Foods’ Good Natured Selects brand. “We want to follow where the consumer wants to go, so we do see it as an opportunity,” he says.

“In general, the better-for-you snack food category offers tremendous opportunity for new and established food manufacturers,” agrees Jeff Smith, director of marketing for Blue Diamond Almonds’ Global Ingredient Division (www.bdingredients.com), Sacramento, Calif. “Consumers are snacking now more than ever before and increasingly reaching for convenient and nutritious products that complement a healthy lifestyle.”