Wander the aisles of your local supermarket and you’ll pass dozens – possibly hundreds – of foods and beverages that owe their existence to a single yet ubiquitous food processing technology: separation.
You may know that separators are used to skim off cream from milk or sift cheese curds from whey. But separation is also vital to a myriad other process – from removing spores and bacteria from infant formula ingredients, to clarifying orange juice, to producing the protein powder for your post-gym shake.
Indeed, separators are as essential to breakfast table mainstays like yoghurt and cheese as they are to newer products like quark, coconut water – from which they remove oil and cloudiness – and liquid nutrition supplements, such as meal replacement shakes and nutrition drinks, where separation eliminates impurities and refines the whey powder base.
Separation has been around for decades, and the technology is constantly evolving as consumer trends impose new and different demands on food processors.
Formula for success
Take infant formula. Growing demand and a consumer focus on product safety and purity are pushing manufacturers to adopt more stringent and sophisticated separation processes.
Because young infants cannot tolerate bacteria or spores, producers are at pains to ensure that any such impurities are removed during processing.
Quality standards, once highest in North America and Europe, are also increasing at global level. China, now the largest and fastest-growing market for baby milk, is leading a movement in the Asia-Pacific region to premiumize infant formula.
Whey protein is the central ingredient of infant formula and related products such as liquid nutrient supplements and sports powders. Whey proteins are highly nutritious. In infant formula, the whey protein ratio is carefully balanced in order to mimic breast milk.
Whey – a by-product of cheesemaking – is a sensitive product whose quality relies on effective separation.
First, cheese residues, or fines, must be separated from the liquid whey in a clarifier. Then another separator skims off the fat as whey cream, before spores and bacteria are removed in a bactofuge unit. The more efficient the separation process, the lower the fat content, and the higher the quality of the whey concentrate.
“Whey used to be a waste product that was fed to animals. No one considered it for human consumption,” says Aulikki Kemppainen, Application Specialist Dairy Centrifuges at Tetra Pak. “Then people realised that a lot of the nutritious proteins are in the whey. Today, whey almost creates more value than cheese production.”
Fit not fat
A global consumer trend towards healthier lifestyles is driving demand for whey. “Consumers are focused on high-protein, low-fat products. They typically want the highest protein content they can get with the lowest fat. This is why demand is growing for pure whey protein purified from fat and lactose,” Kemppainen says.
Certainly, this is the case for sports nutrition products, which are booming amid growing interest in personal fitness. These products are either sold in powder form or as ready-mixed drinks. Global demand is growing at around 8% per year.*
Add in nutritional protein supplements for weight management and age-related meal replacement products, and it’s easy to see why whey is hot property.
“Healthy ageing is a growing trend and whey protein is a vital component of clinical and age-related nutrition products,” explains Gareth Cheverton, Tetra Pak Business Development and Marketing Manager.
The biggest and most established whey protein markets are the US and Europe, but interest is growing strongly worldwide.
Nanne van Dijk, Tetra Pak Whey Technologist, says: “We get more and more inquiries from India and Eastern Europe, for instance, about investing in whey protein equipment. Producers in these and other countries are becoming aware that whey protein can be an income stream as cheese volumes grow.”
Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa are forecast to be the fastest-growing markets for whey protein for meal replacement and supplement nutrition drinks in the next five to six years, so demand for whey protein processing equipment can be expected to rise from these markets, too.*
The protein trend is also visible in other dairy applications such as quark, whose low-fat, high protein profile is increasingly popular in Europe and foreign markets like Oceania and China (though the Chinese prefer a full-fat, sweetened version as an indulgent dessert).
Such products represent an opportunity for dairies to diversify and establish new income streams, particularly in Western markets where milk demand is no longer growing.
Given that whey is a cheese by-product, its supply is limited by cheesemaking capacity. Manufacturers may face a future challenge to ensure sufficient access to whey as consumer demand for whey products grows. “We already see that companies are trying to collaborate to ensure they have a source of whey,” van Dijk notes.
Whey separation also requires significant capital investment. Hence, smaller cheese companies often sell their whey stream to third parties for processing. Larger dairies and cheesemakers, however, have the critical mass to invest in their own whey lines.
Bacto the future
What does all this mean for separators? The importance of ingredient purity in whey protein production – and the crucial importance of eliminating bacteria and spores to ensure high quality – is driving interest in bactofuge units, which are specialist separators for bacteria and spore removal.
For cheesemakers, bactofuge performance is paramount because anaerobic spores inside cheese can spoil the product during or after maturation but with no outward signs of deterioration.
The same argument applies in whey production, where producers depend on clarifiers to remove cheese fines prior to the separation of skim whey from whey cream, and bacteria and spore removal.
Again, separator specifications are crucial to meeting producer standards and expectations, especially as producers increasingly request versatile separation equipment that can maximise fat skimming ability while simultaneously running an ever-wider band of capacities.
“We see more and more demands for lower-fat skimming but at high capacity,” says Tetra Pak’s Aulikki Kemppainen.
Here, she suggests, producers may seek to gain an edge with hermetic separators because they support a wider capacity span than semi-open models.
Separator technology has come a long way since it was patented back in 1878, and it is certain that new trends among consumers will continue to drive the evolution of this workhorse of food and beverage processing.
* Source: 3A Business Consulting