A great many foods are produced by combining standardised ingredients to create an end product. The manufacturing of these ingredients requires large amounts of energy and raw materials. Research by the Institute for Sustainable Process Technology (ISPT), carried out at Wageningen University & Research (WUR), examines how a new approach to ingredients can increase sustainability in the food and beverage industry. The general concept is that mild fractionation of ingredients results in fewer low-value by-products and the more effective use of raw materials.
The paradox of standardised ingredients
The food and beverage industry is currently configured to create products by combining standardised ingredients for maximum efficiency and cost-effectiveness. This approach leads to some peculiar situations. For example, an episode of the Dutch television programme ‘De Keuringsdienst van Waarde’ shows that it is cheaper to produce brown bread from flour, fibre and colouring than from whole grains. This means it is more cost-effective to first fully separate and standardise the agro-materials and then recombine them, instead of using more mildly processed ingredients. At the same time, large amounts of energy and water are needed to transform these materials into standardised ingredients, requiring intensive processing. Production of lower-cost ingredients therefore demands vast quantities of raw materials. As a rule of thumb: the purer the ingredient, the more natural resources (such as energy and water) are required to produce it.
Increasing sustainability of ingredients
Researchers at ISPT and WUR are looking for new ingredients that involve only minimal or mild processing in order to boost the sustainability of the food and beverage industry. ‘The industry mainly looks to efficient processing to produce more sustainably, but the use of other ingredients also offers options for improvement,’ explains PhD candidate Marlies Geerts. In this regard, the current split between companies that produce ingredients and companies that process ingredients will have to change. ‘Standard ingredients are processed to offer a certain level of purity.
Through product development, the right combination of various refined ingredients is used to achieve the appropriate functionality. Our research shows that mild or minimally processed ingredients offer the same functionality. Production of these mildly processed ingredients requires less raw materials than today’s refined ingredients and results in fewer low-value by-products. But there are various things that need to change before we can see these ingredients utilised in practice,’ says Geerts. She studies the potential of mild new separation technologies for the production of functional ingredients in the food and beverage industry.
Recipe formulation with mild ingredients
Mild processed ingredients fit well with what is known as a ‘clean label’ – a label containing only familiar ingredient names. ‘Consumers have become more critical towards the use of ingredients that they regard as unnatural. They are put off by a long list of refined ingredients,’ explains Geerts. ‘Mildly processed ingredients have lower molecular purity but can replace refined ingredients to a certain extent. Minerals and vitamins are retained better and will still be present in the end product. Additionally, a mild oil extract for example is still naturally in emulsion, so you don’t need emulsifiers.’ In that way, mildly processed components result in a shorter list of ingredients.
The use of mild and minimally processed ingredients is likely to increase the complexity of the food processing chain. The colour and flavour of mild ingredients are less standardised, which means that they can’t always be used in the same way as current alternatives. This variability is not necessarily a problem, though it is not desirable in some cases, for example when it causes deviations in the colour of a transparent beverage. When cooking at home, we tend to modify recipes to adapt them to the characteristics of the ingredients we are using, in terms of colour and consistency for example. The same thing will have to be done in industrial processes. Modern sensors and knowledge of the characteristics of the ingredients being used offer some support with this. In addition, the producer and the processor of an ingredient must work closely together to make optimal use of the stronger connection between the raw material and the end product in which it appears.
Optimising formulas in the chain
When working with mild ingredients, there are often other logistical aspects to consider as well. A liquid concentrate, for example, requires refrigerated transport and storage, and there are larger quantities to move. This means that more energy is needed to transport and store it than a standardised dry powder. Yet the production of that same powder requires far more energy for the dehydration process, removing water which will probably be added back in by the client. The best combination of ingredients for the environment and a company’s budget will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis. The researchers calculate how the choice of ingredients determines logistics, and vice versa. As a recently published German study [Depping et al. (2017), Journal of Cleaner Production] also shows, the entire chain has to be examined to find the best alternative.
Sustainable use of raw materials
Multiple studies by WUR show that mild ingredients offer the same functionality as the current standardised ingredients. In some cases the functionality is even better. The processing of these ingredients requires less raw materials and results in fewer low-value by-products. ‘Research and product development have to focus more on the best way to use the agricultural crops that we have. Instead of complex and intensive processes for simple ingredients, we have to look at simple processes for gently processed but more complex ingredients,’ says Geerts. ‘In this way, better use of raw materials is combined with production of functional ingredients that ultimately enhance the quality of the end products.’ Good logistics and communication between the agricultural industry and food processors, however, is indispensable. In the ISPT project, these parties work together on the practical implementation of insights gained through case studies. This shared approach contributes to a more sustainable food and beverage industry that is able to address the challenges of the future.