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Q&A: Thermal Processing

Food Manufacturing spoke with Camilla Howard of Unitherm Food Systems about the topic of thermal processing in the food manufacturing industry.

Food Manufacturing spoke with Camilla Howard of Unitherm Food Systems about the topic of thermal processing in the food manufacturing industry.

Q. What are the newest innovations in thermal food processing technologies?

A. Flame peeling onions. The statistics alone in this new process are what caught my attention: Processing time 45-60 seconds, loss of 2 percent. My background is working in kitchens, particularly in smaller restaurants where minimizing waste is a focus. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that yields were sacrificed for efficiency when automating this process. Traditionally, onions are topped, tailed and peeled, resulting in a loss of about 20 percent or more. This new patent-pending approach was inspired by flame roasting peppers, which is essentially done by charring the skin and washing it off. Unitherm has used the body of the traditional flame grill and radically changed the internal build with intellectual property to fit this new application, the Flame Peeler. Beyond the benefits of yield improvement, the new process also pasteurizes the onions. The system is already installed and operating in Australia and America.

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Q. What trends do you see in consumer preferences regarding processed foods and how are processors addressing those preferences?

A. As a society we’re shifting from a culture that eats solely for pleasure and flavor, to a focus on health. Healthier diets and lifestyles are “trendy.” Since public knowledge of health risks and benefits associated with foods are more readily accessible and visible, consumers are informed. As a result, demand for food to not only taste good but to also achieve specific health parameters is growing and evolving on a daily basis. Interest in products that are healthy, low sodium, fresh, or next tier and artisanal insinuate health benefits. Consumers are watching not only caloric intake but sodium levels, sugar levels, ingredient lists, extensive shelf-lives, stabilizers, etc. Where in the past food manufacturers have focused on producing sales as a result of taste, gears are shifting.

Plant managers have to meet the demands of both their management team, watching their bottom line, and research and development teams pushing for innovation and market relevance. So more and more processors are looking for ways to add value to their products while achieving health demands put forth on the market. How can a product taste good, without oversalting? How else can flavor be extracted? Perhaps with various other spices, or using different cooking applications and methods. Grilling, for instance, to add barbeque flavor and appearance. Flash frying and baking, rather than deep frying products. Achieving pasteurization through thermal energies, with the use of infrared technologies instead of injecting ready to eat deli meats with antimicrobials. Or the use of liquid smoke combined with infrared grilling to eliminate carcinogens. In the past six months alone we’ve seen a significant shift in this direction; flame grills have been in high demand, customers are searing and bar marking to add flavor naturally to products, before sous-vide cooking. Usually the benefits are two-fold: the products are healthier for consumers, but also the producers themselves see benefits to their bottom line.

Q. How can food manufacturers/processors benefit from working with thermal food equipment manufacturers to achieve their goals?

A. Just as food processors are experts in their field, with their products and perhaps on their processes, such is the same for equipment manufacturers. Once a goal has been identified and disclosed, we know what alterations to make to achieve these goals. This may be through the use of a current model of equipment or the creation of something new. For food manufacturers, this might mean considering a whole different approach; instead of perhaps their traditional cooking method using rack ovens, they might be encouraged to change to a continuous system. The new system may involve different thermal energies that food processors otherwise may not have combined to generate the desired results. When two teams from different fields come together and collaborate openly to achieve a common goal, both parties benefit.

Q. In your opinion, what single thermal food solution can diversify a product line from generic to an added value product?

A. A direct-flame grill. More specifically, I can speak from experience about a Unitherm Flame Grill. This equipment can take an anemic, generic product (be it a chicken breast or zucchini) and in seconds provide flavor, color and yield improvements. The flame grill, though often sold as part of a full processing line, can function as a stand-alone unit, so it can apply to various levels of processing. It can be integrated to the front of a full cook line, finish a line, or even be used in a partial cook line. In the last year we’ve seen a huge growth in sous-vide cooking applications. The flame grill is a great accessory to these processing lines, developing color and flavor first. We have several Michelin-rated chefs in love with this piece of equipment through their collaboration with food processors. The combinations and applications are endless — and the results speak for themselves.

Q. What are equipment manufacturers doing to aid food processors as both consumers and regulators evolve, increasing demands and challenges?

A. As demands increase for food processors, equipment manufacturers have to be agile enough to adapt with them. These demands can be viewed as hindrances or opportunities. When consumer demands change, processes need to be altered. This provides an opening in the market for a new piece of equipment. At Unitherm we look for this opportunity, identify it and find a solution. The HACCP at each processing facility varies, but the goal is the same — reduce risk. In January, Unitherm collaborated with the Grote Company to eliminate a highly volatile point in any processing line — bacteria growth on slicing equipment. After identifying the risk, the solution seemed simple — and through collaboration execution was possible. In short, it’s a self-sterilizing slitter that attaches to the end of the cooking apparatus, slicing while the product is still hot, and simultaneously sanitizing the blades; virtually eliminating risk.