Four Cutting-Edge Technologies We’re Watching for Food & Beverage

Sept. 30, 2021
We’ve identified four promising processing technologies that we feel have the potential to bring significant improvements in efficiency and safety for the food and beverage industry

One of the food industry’s biggest challenges in forward planning is how to incorporate nascent technology. What game-changers are on the horizon, currently used by few if any?

No one can know for sure. But we’ve identified four promising processing technologies that we feel have the potential to bring significant improvements in efficiency and safety: a way to treat water to make it more sanitizing; developments in ways to assess odors chemically or electronically; equipment for determining the gender of unhatched chicken eggs; and an enhancement that increases the efficiency of oil separation.

Plasma activated water

Water that attacks microorganisms while rinsing food, without changing its flavor or other properties, is a sort of Holy Grail of sanitation. There are biocide additives for rinse water like peracetic acid, sometimes used on poultry carcasses, but these are often hazardous to use and handle and are not universally accepted. (The European Union, for example, won’t allow imports of poultry treated with peracetic acid.)

A more imaginative solution is to fundamentally change the properties of the water itself. That’s where plasma activated water (PAW) comes in.

Plasma treatment involves exposing air to electricity, then introducing it into water, inducing some basic chemical changes. These include lowering the water’s pH, which renders it more acidic, and producing substances that include ozone, reactive oxygen and nitrogen, all of which attack microorganisms. The result is water that can extend shelf life and increase food safety, while still remaining water.

One of the biggest potential applications for PAW is in processing fresh vegetables like salad greens, says Kaliramesh Siliveru, an assistant professor at Kansas State University. “As the produce industry uses a series of washing operations to fully clean and improve produce food safety, the introduction of PAW would help achieve better cleaning and microbial safety of produce,” he says.

“This is because the reactive species present in PAW were known to have bactericidal properties and were reported to cause significant reductions in the microbial load of various produce items after washing treatment,.” He adds. (Siliveru, who co-authored a 2018 paper on PAW, is assisted in his research by graduate student Jared Lou Rivera.)

Other suggested uses for PAW include making ice from it for storage and display of raw seafood, and in agricultural applications like sprouting seeds and tempering wheat during milling.

PAW is chemically unstable, so it can’t be produced ahead of time and stored; it must be generated near the time and point of application. That requires relatively expensive equipment, which is a major obstacle to adoption. It also requires safety training around its use of high-voltage electricity, which can present hazards, especially in volatile environments high in dust.

Artificial noses

“Electronic noses” engendered some excitement in the 1990s. They would supposedly provide objective, replicable profiles of odor and flavor while being cheaper and faster than a panel of trained human tasters. Only things didn’t quite work out as advertised.

“Originally electronic nose technology was oversold and mis-sold by companies in the field, and expectations did not live up to reality. This caused most of them to go out of business,” says Krishna Persaud, a professor and researcher at the University of Manchester.

But research into the field has continued, with improvements to the electronic sensors used in synthetic noses. They now are used for “spot” applications like testing for drugs, but none of them has yet been commercialized in the food industry, Persaud says.

Different materials and principles for these sensors have been developed that show progress. The earliest material was metal oxide, which reacts chemically to different compounds in a sample; a big development has been miniaturizing those sensors and producing them on silicon-based micro-hot plates. This reduces their power consumption and lets them integrate more easily with the device’s other electronic components.

Another option is the use of chemical sensors with dyes that change color when exposed to an odor; this change can be measured optically and interpreted by system software. In addition, advances in electronics have made it more feasible to measure different aspects of odor with only one, or a few, sensors, as opposed to the array that most electronic noses have used.

One big debate over artificial noses is whether the goal is to use them to help formulate products or for inline inspection. The former requires finer calibration to detect nuances in aroma; the latter requires rapid response.

Inline inspection is perhaps the “sexier” application, since it offers new vistas in quality control. But synthetic testing for product development has great potential also; it promises consistency and fast results, especially for smaller operations that might have to wait for results from a remote taste panel.

Pretreatment with “megasonic” sound waves in this unit makes fats like palm oil easier to separate in a centrifuge.

One new development in synthetic testing comes from a startup making something that’s not an artificial nose at all. Aromyx has developed biotechnology that uses genes from “receptors” – proteins that bind with the surface of neurons in the human nose, causing a signal to fire to the brain when they react with the chemicals that cause odors.

Introducing these genes to cells in a petri dish makes the cells generate these “receptor” proteins, which can then be exposed to product samples to see whether they react. Aromyx’s software can interpret these results into standard taste descriptors used by professional tasters.

A big advantage of Aromyx’s technology is that it can be tailored to things like regional or demographic preferences, says CEO Josh Silverman. Using genetic coding available through the Human Genome Project, Aromyx can incorporate preferences by geographic area, gender or many other factors. Because the receptors are sensitive to specific chemicals, the test can indicate exactly how a flavor profile should be changed to make it more appealing.

“We’re essentially the replacement for the human tasting panel,” Silverman says. “We can tell them exactly, ‘These ingredients are driving the customer experience by this much,’ and predict for them, ‘Here’s how much you should change your ingredient profile to get there.’ ”

Gender-testing fertilized eggs

The egg and poultry industries have been trying to cope with various issues relating to the welfare of their birds – whether they have enough room, what they eat, and so on. One welfare issue that’s been hard to deal with is whether the birds get to grow up in the first place.

Male chicks are much less valuable than females; they can’t lay eggs, and their meat isn’t as good. So poultry farms and hatcheries routinely slaughter male chicks, sometimes by gruesome methods, days after birth. Some governments, like Germany’s, are taking steps to limit or end the practice, and some trade customers are demanding it.

The problem is that until recently, no good technology existed to tell the sex of a chicken in the egg automatically. Professional human candlers can do it, but not until the embryo is relatively developed, making it harder to use the male eggs.

A Dutch startup called In Ovo has developed a new method for determining the gender of an egg nine days after it was laid. A needle pierces the shell and withdraws a drop of fluid from inside the egg; biocompatible glue then seals the tiny hole, leaving the egg fully useable.

Wouter Bruins, In Ovo’s managing director, said the key to the process was discovering a chemical compound in the fluid of fertilized eggs that differs by gender: “We discovered a difference between males and females that was previously unknown.” The difference is apparent when the fluid is exposed to mass spectrometry, and In Ovo uses what Bruins claims to be the world’s fastest mass spec, capable of a measurement per second. The male eggs are sold to a company that spray-dries them into an ingredient for pet food.

Competing technologies exist. One exposes the entire egg to mass spectrometry, but it can only be used on eggs from chickens with brown feathers; most layers in the U.S. have white ones. Another extracts fluid similarly to In Ovo, but uses PCR, a DNA test, to determine gender – a process that is highly accurate but slow and expensive.

In Ovo has a machine in place in a Netherlands hatchery that can process about 20,000 eggs a week. It has an upgraded version ready that can process about five times that load, Bruins says.

Megasonic Oil/Fat Separation

Separating oils and fats from whatever other substances they’re mixed with is a basic food processing operation, whether it’s rendering edible oils from seed or deriving milkfat from milk. This is almost always done through various forms of centrifuges, which separate out the fat based on how its density makes it respond differently to centrifugal force.

The Aromyx system uses biotechnology to replicate the “receptors” in the human nose that react with volatiles to sense odors.

Now a technology is being studied that can supplement centrifugal processing to increase yield. The studies are being conducted by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), an Australian government entity devoted to a broad spectrum of scientific research.

Megasonic treatment for oils involves using waves of megahertz ultrasound to create micro-bubbles in an oil-bearing biomass, which helps separate the oil, according to Pablo Juliano, CSIRO’s food processing and supply chains group leader. The sound waves also tend to agglomerate both liquid droplets and solid particulates, making them larger and easier for the centrifuge to separate.

“The technology complements decanter separators by pre-disposing the oil for further removal during centrifugation,” Juliano says. When applied to raw oil biomass or other material containing oils or fats, just before the centrifuge, megasonic treatment has increased yields by 45 tons per hour in palm oil mills and three tons per hour in olive oil plants, he says.

According to CSIRO’s calculation, an installation in a palm oil plant has a potential return on investment of less than two and a half years. Not only does megasonic treatment increase yield; it allows centrifuges to separate out oils faster and more easily, saving energy and prolonging the equipment’s life.

CSIRO has patented the first commercial-scale megasonic food separation equipment that uses sound waves at the megahertz frequency. The only applications so far have been for edible oils like palm, coconut and olive. Future possibilities include milkfat separation, fat separation from meat streams and wastewater treatment.

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