Claire Rowan is group technical editor, magazines, FoodBev Media. This is a personal blog and views expressed are her own.
Long used by surgeons as a healing aid, cold plasma technology in medicinal physics or as a decontamination agent in computer technology is now being researched by DIT Hothouse, the commercial development arm of Dublin Institute of Technology, for application in several areas of the food industry.
The specialists in plasma physics, process engineering, chemistry and microbiology at DIT have discovered that using a plasma curtain prior to edible oil application can bring a 50% to 70% reduction in the fat content of baked goods or snack products. Further work has been carried out into applications in meat safety and shelf life; reducing the environmental contaminants in process waste; and reducing contamination on fresh salads and vegetables.
“Plasma technology involves exciting electrons, and we believe the applications for its use are wide ranging,” said Kieran O’Connell, food licensing executive at DIT Hothouse, which is actively looking for industrial partners to help commercialise the development of its patented technology in different application areas.
The technology can reduce the fat content of oil-sprayed baked goods.
Furthest down the development line is the use of plasma technology to reduce the fat content of baked goods and snacks, which DIT Hothouse has perfected at “lab bench level” and is looking to develop further ready for factory scale trials.
Many biscuits and crackers have edible oil sprayed on their surface after baking to contribute to flavour and to help adhere seasoning. As this oil can contribute heavily to the calories provided by the products, not to mention cost of production, any reduction in its quantity offers significant benefits.
“We have found that passing the dry product through a plasma curtain prior to oil spraying and coating with seasoning reduces the amount of oil actually needed, as the plasma modifies the surface of the product, making it smoother and allowing the oil to spread more rapidly and evenly,” said Kieran, who explained that its successful trials have demonstrated that there is no impact on the palatability, seasoning coverage or aesthetic appearance of the end products. “We are already talking to big snack companies in the US and EU, plus some smaller manufacturers in Ireland. The technology fits seamlessly into a traditional snack line prior to the application of oil and seasoning and requires as little as 100w to operate.”
For meat, the DIT Hothouse Bioplasma Group, headed by Dr PJ Cullen, has found that by passing a modified atmosphere pack (MAP) of fresh meat through a plasma curtain decontaminates the surface of the meat thereby offering benefits in terms of product quality and safety over a longer shelf life. Similar work is exploring this same potential in fresh MAP bags of salads or cut vegetables, while the DIT researchers are also talking to industry about application of the cold plasma for removing contaminants from food waste streams.
Interesting applications and some tangible benefits are likely to see plasma technology appear in process systems before too long. We look forward to hearing from the early adopters.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2019