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The food & beverage industry is wasting taxpayers’ money and ignoring the wishes of consumers

Posted: 14 October 2009 | Huub Lelieveld, Executive Committee, Global Harmonistaion Initiative | No comments yet

Despite the fact that preservation of food is essential to ensure that we have food during winter times, for several decades, consumers and consumer organisations have shown an aversion against the most-applied traditional preservation methods: the addition of chemical preservatives, such as sorbic acid, and the use of heat to pasteurise or sterilise the product. The chemicals, they have been told, are not safe and the heat destroys vitamins and other nutrients.

Despite the fact that preservation of food is essential to ensure that we have food during winter times, for several decades, consumers and consumer organisations have shown an aversion against the most-applied traditional preservation methods: the addition of chemical preservatives, such as sorbic acid, and the use of heat to pasteurise or sterilise the product. The chemicals, they have been told, are not safe and the heat destroys vitamins and other nutrients.

Despite the fact that preservation of food is essential to ensure that we have food during winter times, for several decades, consumers and consumer organisations have shown an aversion against the most-applied traditional preservation methods: the addition of chemical preservatives, such as sorbic acid, and the use of heat to pasteurise or sterilise the product. The chemicals, they have been told, are not safe and the heat destroys vitamins and other nutrients.

Politicians therefore decided to offer the industry large sums of taxpayers’ money (either directly or indirectly, by funding research institutes), to look for other methods of preservation. The result has been a range of new technologies, many of which did not make it. This may have been for good reasons (a technology may be too expensive to apply) or wrong reasons (e.g. supposing that gamma radiation of food makes the food dangerous for your health, in the same way as fruit, ripened in the sun, would cause sunburn when consumed). Why, however, does the food industry not apply novel technologies, that are cheaper than traditional methods and do not change the product, apart from destroying cell walls, thereby killing bacteria and making more of the nutrients available to the body of the consumer?

One such a technology is PEF or ‘pulsed electric field’ treatment, the principle being the exposure of bacteria, for just a few millionths of a second, to an electric field (about 2 Volts per micrometer; a micrometer being about the maximum size of most bacteria). That field thereby creates holes in the bacterial cell wall, after which the microbe dies. At the same time, the process also makes holes in the walls of the cells that constitute the food product, making the contents of the cells available for the human body. Cooking the food has a similar effect on the cell walls, but destroys vitamins and other nutrients, so that less of it becomes available.

The entire global food research community has been working on PEF, which has resulted in thousands of publications showing how wonderful the technology is. Nevertheless, there has been just one small company in the US that – with permission of the Food and Drug Administration – put a range of fruit juices on the market that had been preserved using PEF. Regrettably, that company was a little too early, used sub-optimal equipment that, moreover, was too expensive. They had to return the unpaid equipment to the manufacturer and stopped using PEF.

Meanwhile, the technology has matured and has been explained in detail in many books. These books not only describe how the technology works, but also gives much data on the influence of the process on colour, flavour, vitamins and other nutrients, in comparison with heat-processed food. As far as is known, since the US company ceased manufacturing PEF-treated fruit juices, not a single company has picked it up. The question is: why does the food & beverage industry not apply a technology that 1) is suitable to make products that meet the demands of consumers; 2) would increase the company’s profit (because a better tasting product will be produced that has a higher content of nutrients, but is produced at lower costs and be sold at the same price) and 3) uses less energy (PEF uses less energy than, for example, pasteurisation and therefore is more sustainable; in addition, cleaning is much easier than that of plate heat-exchangers and requires fewer cleaning agents).

Of course, it is understandable that no company would invest in installing equipment for a new process without evidence that the company’s product would indeed be better. That, however, cannot really be the bottleneck as several research institutes offer the possibility to do laboratory or pilot plant scale trials with their products. Are food companies afraid of trying or do they find it just much easier to stick with a traditional process than having to think about a new process?

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