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.
Small and medium-sized enterprises (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.
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 two technologies have many different applications in the food industry.
“Consumers are increasingly choosing fresher and minimally processed foods“
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.
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. 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.
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, utrasound etc., it is still challenging to have equipment responding to the food industry requirements’.
“SMEs, rather than multinational companies, are the ones currently introducing new technologies”
Novel foods regulation
A new production process applied in food production might mean the food becomes “novel”. 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. It is the responsibility of the party who wants to market the food to seek clarification on the regulatory status with its national food authority body.
Non-thermal processing and its applications
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.
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. 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.
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. PEF can be used to facilitate cutting operations of peeling of fruits and vegetables by modifying food structure. PEF can also improve extraction of compounds from plant cells, such as extraction of polyphenols during red wine making.
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.