i³-food- project: How to implement innovative technologies in the food industry?

March 06, 2018

The application of innovative food technologies often fails due to production-related or technical obstacles but also due to high investment costs. The project i³-food, funded by the European Commission and recently completed, focuses on this and developed concepts for fast industrial implementation for three selected technologies. With the aid of foresight analysis Fraunhofer ISI researched the innovation environment as well as opportunities and obstacles and recorded the findings in a roadmap.

In the last few years and decades food technologies have continually been developed further. This does not only mean that food can be produced faster and healthier, it also keeps longer. Furthermore, energy efficiency in the production process was improved and a new stage of ready-to-eat food was reached. Despite the many advantages innovative ideas are slow to catch on in the food industry. This has technical and financial reasons, yet it could also be due to consumers' doubts.

A consortium of six companies and four research institutions, including Fraunhofer ISI, dealt with the opportunities and barriers of three food technologies in the project i³-food and researched their implementation: this concerns the process of pulsed electric fields (Pulsed Electric Field Preservation, PEF-P for short), thermal high pressure sterilization (High Pressure Thermal Sterilization, HPTS for short) as well as an extrusion process with low shearing forces (Low Shear Extrusion). Within a foresight analysis Fraunhofer ISI developed three roadmaps which illustrate the potentials and barriers for the food technologies from today until the year 2030.

Healthier and more varied products?

Initially the planetary roller extrusion process considered a relatively new food technology which up to now has also been used to process chocolate. The aim was to transfer the advantages to the production of ice cream. With conventional screw extruders, the control of important parameters such as the product temperature or the shearing speed is often difficult which can lead to a loss in quality. In the project, however, a planetary roller extruder with low shearing speeds was used, which has temperature, pressure and density sensors and which make ice cream production easier to monitor. This does not only save time and energy but also produces healthier and creamier ice cream. This goes back to the smaller ice crystals which in this process are formed without adding sugar. As the roadmap shows, the technology could result in healthier and more varied products by 2025 and beyond. By the same token a lack of experts, technical equipment and test facilities could slow down the dissemination in the same period of time.

Thermal high pressure sterilization, HPTS for short, and also investigated in the project, is a food stabilizing technology used in low processed food such as guacamole, fruit salads or salmon. In contrast to high-pressure pasteurization the thermal exposure of the food is less for the HPTS process which has a positive effect on color, texture, taste and nutrient content. As the process is based on heat interference, controlling the temperature is crucial. A sensor which was developed in the project facilitates improved monitoring of the temperature and the pressure. As far as the future potential of HPTS is concerned, the process could be used for products like smoothies or soups. However, high technology costs or differing market conditions in different countries could slow the dissemination of HPTS technology by 2025.    

PEF technology makes better conservation possible  

The third PEF technology, which was investigated, is used almost exclusively to conserve fruit or vegetable juice. It increases their shelf life and the gentle processing has a positive effect on freshness and quality. Currently only few SME make use of PEF conservation which is also due to a lack of standardized procedural control and a lack of legislative directives for PEF treated food. In the project a standardized online monitoring tool was therefore developed which takes account of the different process and operating parameters of PEF conservation (e.g. energy usage, temperature). The roadmap also points out possible positive aspects such as high quality of PEF products, sustainable operation due to little waste and the good integrability of the technology in existing systems which could lead to increasing dissemination by 2020. In the near future possible low customer acceptance, the necessary adaptation of the current food legislation and high investment costs could act as a barrier.

Dr. Björn Moller, coordinator of the roadmaps in the i³-food project at Fraunhofer ISI, summarizes the main research findings, “For all three food technologies certain parallels can be seen: High acquisition costs, great complexity and a lack of expertise are often a barrier whereas opportunities to save energy, good technical integration, high product quality and the possible diversification of products have a positive impact on the dissemination of technologies. Industry, research and politics together must make sure to highlight more clearly the positive aspects of innovative technologies, provide know-how and ensure appropriate regulation. This is the only way to implement innovative food technologies in practice - and this is necessary in order to ensure the competiveness of the European food industry.“

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.