Food processing technologies & applications: interview with Javier Raso, University of Zaragoza in Spain

Food processing technologies & applications: interview with Javier Raso, University of Zaragoza in Spain

Food processing permits consumers to have a large variety of foods available and, as consequence result, they have a more varied and balanced diet. Many of the raw materials used by the food industry are seasonal products. Thanks to food processing these products are available in supermarkets all year round. Perhaps the main advantage of food processing is that after processing foods are safer from a microbiological point of view than fresh or unprocessed foods.

Trends

Consumers are increasingly choosing fresher and minimally processed products because of their perception of processed foods being harmful to their health. The main advantage of novel technologies is that they permit the extension of the products shelf-life and guarantee safety of fresh foods without affecting taste, appearance and nutritional properties.

Consumers are increasingly choosing fresher and minimally processed foods

Improve heating or avoid temperature rise

For centuries heating has been used in food processing with different objectives. Novel food processing technologies can be divided into technologies that reduce the negative impact of thermal processing by improving heating (microwave, ohmic heating) and the non-thermal processing technologies (HPP, PEF and irradiation) that avoid the increase of temperature during processing. HPP stands for High Pressure Processing, using pressure to preserve the food and PEF stands for Pulsed Electric Field, using electricity pulses. These technologies have many different applications in the food industry.

Non-thermal processing

Non-thermal processing occurs at lower temperatures than those used in thermal processing, preventing the negative effects of heat in taste and nutrition. Additionally, reduction of energy inputs by using these new technologies may contribute to reduce the environmental impact of food processing. PEF and HPP are widely used in the food industry.

Preservation

HPP is a very useful technology for pasteurizing solid foods after packaging and preventing contaminations after processing. The main problem of HPP is that it is a batch process so the production capacity of the facilities is low. PEF is more suitable for pasteurization of liquid foods because it permits working in continuous lines at the processing requirements of the food industry. PEF cannot be used for preservation of solid foods. Both technologies inactivate bacteria, but are not able to inactivate bacterial spores so applications must be focused on food pasteurization rather than sterilization.

Other applications

Both PEF and HPP can be used for other applications other than food preservation. For example, HPP can be used to easily and cleanly remove meat from shellfish including oysters, lobsters and crabs and PEF can be used to improve extraction of intracellular compounds in different operations of the food industry such as extraction of polyphenols during red wine making or to modify food structure facilitating cutting operations of peeling of fruits and vegetables.

A less well-known example would be the more than 25 companies across the world that introduced the PEF technology to produce frozen french fries. The equipment can process 50 tons of potatoes per hour and the benefits of the treatment are reducing cutting force, less loss of potato sticks by fracture and the reduction of oil intake during pre-frying before freezing.

SMEs, rather than multinational companies, are the ones currently introducing these new technologies.

About the future

Industry 4.0 “industry of the future”

People are talking about Industry 4.0 as the “industry of the future” in which devices are interconnected, communicate and autonomously control processes. The food industry has to take advantage of the new tools and be more flexible for a better adaptation to the consumption niches and the specific demands of consumers.

Small-sized companies

SMEs, rather than multinational companies, are the ones currently introducing these new technologies in their processing lines. The commercialization of food processed by new technologies has significantly increased in the last decade, but the niche is still too low compared to products processed by traditional technologies. New technologies offer opportunities to SMEs to be more competitive: introducing new products in the market, improving productivity and reducing environmental impact.

Initial costs

The initial cost of equipment is currently high, but this will significantly decrease once these technologies are more widely implemented. So, SMEs need to be prepared to introduce these new technologies if they want to be competitive. Renting of equipment in companies that offer the service is an alternative if the cost of the equipment too high.

Support

In recent years, there has been a lot of support from national and European agencies to SMEs for the integration of new technologies. For example, we are collaborating with 4 food companies to optimize the PEF technology for their products in an EU funded project called FieldFOOD (https://fieldfood.eu). One of the objectives is to provide modular, portable, low-cost PEF generators with the possibility of connecting several modulators and transducers in series, according to the production capacity of the companies. These modulators have already been tested in the companies involved in the project with very positive results.

Novel foods regulation

Foods processed by new technologies are already considered in EU regulations. According to the Novel Food Regulation (EU) 2015/2283, “novel foods” include foods resulting from a production process not used for food production within the Union before 15 May 1997, which gives rise to significant changes in the composition or structure of food, affecting its nutritional value, metabolism or level of undesirable substances. Thus, a new production process applied in food production does not automatically mean the food becomes “novel”. It is the responsibility of the party who wants to market the food to seek clarification on the regulatory status.

Development to industry-scale

The lack of reliable and viable industrial-scale equipment that accomplished food industry requirements i.e. high processing capacity, low energetic requirements and easy implementation in existing processing lines has limited the commercial exploitation of novel technologies in the food industry for many years. The technological developments recently conducted, has driven the successful transfer of the PEF and HPP technology for industrial applications. For other new processing technologies such as Pulsed light applications, Cold plasma treatment, ultrasound etc., it is still challenging to have equipment responding to the food industry requirements’.

About Javier Raso

Javier Raso is currently professor of Food Technology and former Director of the Pilot Plant of Food Science and Technology at the University of Zaragoza in Spain. Previously, he worked as visiting researcher at Unilever Research in the UK, at Technical University of Berlin at Washington State University (USA). His areas of research are in the field of food preservation and processing by thermal and non-thermal technologies such as ultrasound, high hydrostatic pressure, pulsed electric fields and combined processing.

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