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Keeping It Fresh

Wed, 06/12/2013 - 9:49am
Krystal Gabert, Editor

This article originally ran in the June 2013 issue of Food Manufacturing.

Through a unique partnership only possible in the Netherlands, Hoogesteger juice company and Wageningen University have partnered to create and implement a process by which unpasteurized juice is treated with high voltage pulses, extending shelf life by two weeks.

The triple helix. The golden triangle. The Dutch government uses many names to describe its unique three-pronged approach to economic development, but one thing’s for certain: for companies seeking innovation, the system can offer tremendous benefits.

The Dutch have identified several high value areas of their economy designated for attention, research and collaboration. Among these is the food industry, which has a strong presence in the Food Valley region of the Netherlands.

Food Valley houses a concentration of international food companies as well as Wageningen University, the preeminent university for food research and innovation. Through government facilitation, university research and corporate innovation and implementation, the Dutch create the three strands of their helix, the three corners of the triangle.

Open innovation is key to the success of companies in Food Valley and those across the Netherlands seeking to benefit from such a system. In 2008 Dutch juice company Hoogesteger joined NovelQ, an open innovation project funded by the European Union (EU) and aggressively researching food processing techniques that extend shelf life, increase quality and improve sustainability.

The Hoogesteger Mission

Hoogesteger was founded in 1985, and since then has been producing fresh juice and smoothies for sale across the Netherlands. According to information obtained by Wageningen University, the company produces nearly two million gallons of juice for sale to the Dutch market, 60 percent of which is orange juice. The company has long recognized the superior quality, flavor and nutritional benefits to be delivered from fresh, un-heat-pasteurized juice, but the shelf life constraints of such products created real logistical challenges.

Through the NovelQ program, Hoogesteger joined forces with Wageningen to develop and implement a pulsed electric field  (PEF) system for shelf life extension. PEF technology had been developed decades ago but had yet to be perfected and implemented for application in the beverage market. Michiel van ’t Hek told Wageningen’s alumni magazine, Wageningen World, that, “We wanted to know whether this technology was suitable for fresh juice. Are the microbes deactivated enough, and do the nutritional value, vitamins, flavor and aroma remain reasonably intact?”

Hoogesteger was about to find out. PEF technology was used to create a Fresh Micro Pulse (FMP) process, which optimized the PEF technique for liquid and semi-liquid media.

Delivering Quality

In fresh juice production the FMP process delivers a series of electric pulses to a vessel filled with juice. As microorganism cells take in food through their pores, the cells use internal electric pulses to regulate the size of those pores. The introduction of external electrical pulses can confuse the cells and create holes in their outer membranes. This process ensures that these cells are subsequently unable to divide, replicate and cause decay. This is crucial to the effective application of PEF technology in juice processing, as yeast and other microorganism death is the primary cause of quick spoilage in fresh juices.

René van Vliet, Hoogesteger’s plant manager, says it should be made clear that PEF is not a food safety solution. Traditional heat pasteurization techniques serve a dual purpose: they extend shelf life and ensure food safety by killing off a slew of microorganisms. In the process they also change the nutritional composition and significantly impact the flavor of the juice.

In many ways, Hoogesteger was the perfect candidate for this technology. Because the company was already producing freshly squeezed juices without the added security of a heat pasteurization step, the food safety program at its facility was, by necessity, already robust enough to ensure pathogens did not make it into the company’s juices.

After significant testing of the FMP processes on its juice products, Hoogesteger found no deviation in nutrition, flavor, quality or even vitamin concentration. A series of consumer focus groups attested to the consistency in taste between the traditionally produced and FMP-treated products. According to the company, the resultant product is “biochemically the same” as fresh juice.

And, in the end, Hoogesteger benefited from a shelf life that tripled to 21 days without the use of additional preservatives or pasteurization. This has allowed Hoogesteger to work on expanding its reach beyond Holland to the rest of the Europe.

The Future of PEF in Juice Processing

While Hoogesteger and Wageningen have done the heavy lifting to bring an innovative processing technique like this to market, the benefits of such a method could easily be implemented by U.S. and other international companies. Through its approved HACCP guidance for juice processors, the U.S. FDA has even approved the processes for use by U.S. companies.

Innovation truly is the engine of growth, and in many cases, it also drives us toward sustainability and quality, as in the case of Hoogesteger’s FMP process. Balancing growing consumer demand for healthy, quality food with the logistical and processing concerns faced by manufacturers will continue to be one of the greatest challenges in the food and beverage industries, and new techniques and open innovation can help processors overcome it.

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