This blog post is part of the 'Future trends' series of the KATANA Accelerator: a EU-funded platform for promising entrepreneurs who want to co-create the future of agri & food business. Visit the KATANA website for a complete overview of articles in the 'Future trends' series.
Written by Javier Raso, professor of Food Technology and former Director of the Pilot Plant of Food Science and Technology ath the University of Zaragoza in Spain.
Consumers are increasingly choosing fresher and minimally processed products because of their perception of processed foods can be harmful to health. The main advantage of novel technologies is that they permit to extend the shelf-life and guarantee safety of fresh foods without affecting taste, appearance and nutritional properties.
Improve heating or avoid temperature rise
During centuries heating has been used for food processing with different objectives. Novel food processing technologies can be divided in the technologies that reduce the negative impact of thermal processing by improving heating (microwave, ohmic heating) and the non-thermal processing technologies (HHP, 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 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 HHP are widely used in the food industry.
HHP is a very useful technology for pasteurizing solid foods after packaging, preventing contaminations after processing. The main problem of HHP is that 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 to work in continuous lines at the processing requirements of the food industry. PEF cannot be used for preservation of solid foods. Both technologies have in common that they inactivate bacteria, but are not able to inactivate bacterial spores so applications must be focused on food pasteurization rather than sterilization.
Both PEF and HHP can be used for other applications different to food preservation. For example, HHP can be used to easily and cleanly remove meat form shellfish including oysters, lobsters and crabs and PEF can be used to improve extraction of intracellular compounds in different operation of the food industry such extraction of polyphenols during red winemaking or to modify food structure facilitating cutting operations of peeling of fruits and vegetables.
Many successes are based on the introduction of new processing technologies in the food industry, such as guacamole or coconut water processed by HHP. A less well-known example are 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 potatoes sticks by fracture and reducing of oil intake during pre-frying before freezing.
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”.
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 the market, but the niche is still too low as compared to products processed by traditional technologies. New technologies offer especially opportunities to SMEs to be more competitive: introducing new products in the market, improving productivity and reducing environmental impact.
The initial costs of equipment is currently high, but they will significantly decrease, once these technologies are more often implemented. So, SMEs need to be prepared to introduce these new technologies if they want to be competitive. Renting of equipment or processing in companies that offer the service are alternatives if the cost of the equipment is a problem.
In the last years, there is much support from national and European agencies to SMEs for integration on new technologies. For example, we are collaborating with 4 food companies to optimize the PEF technology for their products in an EU funded project (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 were already 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 a 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 conducted in the last years, 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’.
Javier Raso is currently professor of Food Technology and former Director of the Pilot Plant of Food Science and Technology ath the University of Zaragoza in Spain. Previously, he worked as visiting researcher at Unilever Research in 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.