Food Processing Advances for the Ready-to-Eat Market
New technologies in HPP, MATS and retort serve food manufacturers with options.
E-commerce, concern over food waste and consumer demand for fresh, ready-to-eat (RTE) foods are spurring innovation in the food preservation market. On-the-go consumers are seeking healthy, fresh and RTE options in categories like meats, dairy and juices as an alternative to processed snacks found in the center grocery aisles. Meal kit delivery services provide more convenient ways to prepare meals at home. However, they also demand new, innovative means of delivering food from processors that provide meal ingredients.1
Developments in microwave-assisted thermal sterilization (MATS) are helping meet the demand for preservation methods that ensure food safety and quality while preserving flavor and texture. At the same time, retort and high-pressure processing (HPP) methods remain leading forms of food-preserving packaging. As food and beverage companies explore processing options, there are some important considerations to factor for each.
MATS: Minimizing Refrigeration Needs
MATS is a newer food processing technology that uses a combination of pressurized hot water and microwave technology to quickly eliminate pathogens, allowing storage of packaged food at room temperature for up to a year.
MATS uses long-wavelength microwave energy together with heat and water pressure to sterilize packaged food in a fraction of the time than is normally required for either method used separately. This method retains nutrients and flavor while allowing food to be stored at room temperature for an extended period. Therefore, food brands can use MATS to reduce or eliminate the need for chilled or frozen food distribution. MATS-made dishes can also help minimize food waste and can cut packaging waste for meal kits.
Since the sterilization process for MATS is much shorter than the conventional retort process (10-15 minutes), fewer nutrients are destroyed and the need for food additives, preservatives and excess sodium is reduced or eliminated.
Because MATS processing uses microwave energy, metal packaging is not appropriate. Instead, packaging includes high-barrier plastic pouches, trays and lining with a key barrier polymer of ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH).
HPP: Greater Flexibility for Preservative-Free Products
While food processors are exploring the relatively new MATS technology, those looking for more flexibility when it comes to container size and food portions can explore HPP, which is expected to grow to $350.5 million between 2016-2026, according to Research Report Insights (RRI).2
HPP has applications in RTE products like juice, dips and salsa and shellfish. It has the advantage of performing uniformly across food products of any shape or size and is compatible with rigid and flexible packaging materials.
However, packaging must be able to stand up to the rigorous process but remain flexible enough to withstand the mechanical stress caused by hydrostatic pressure — all while maintaining physical integrity. Because of functional flexibility, elasticity and water-barrier characteristics, plastics are commonly used for HPP packaging. Other materials such as paperboard-based, metal cans and glass bottles are not as well-suited for the technology.
For companies using HPP, The Cold Pressure Council provides a pathway for brands to declare their products “High Pressure Certified.” Visit www.highpressurecertified.org to learn more.
Green Advances in Retort
Retort packaging has been a solution for maintaining the shelf stability of ready-made, microwaveable food products since its invention in 1978. Moving forward, most of the major companies in the retort packaging market are expected to align their product portfolio with evolving demands from the food industry, with offerings like pâtés, meats, salads and olives.
Although retort packaging is praised as an eco-friendly alternative to other formats, the layered film composition of retort packaging makes it difficult to recycle. Retort pouches, trays and cartons often use polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) materials, but key players are developing more environmentally friendly solutions that eliminate these plastics. The retort packaging market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 7.45 percent from 2017-2024, and eco-friendly innovations will push the development.3
Food and beverage processors can look to ProFood Tech (Mar. 26-28, 2019, McCormick Place, Chicago) as a resource for processing solutions. Produced by PACK EXPO, Koelnmesse (organizer of Anuga) and the International Dairy Food Association (IDFA), the event showcases cutting-edge crossover technologies and innovative solutions from 400 exhibitors in more than 125,000 net square feet of exhibit space. Register at profoodtech.com.