Resource Efficient Innovations Database (REID)

Locking out micro-oxygen to improve food preservation

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Locking out micro-oxygen to improve food preservation
Research is working towards the goal of establishing the commercial viability of investing in micro-oxygen processing and filling to extend shelf-life
In Development – It will probably be several years until any commercial applications of this technology are available in the food industry, but should any breakthroughs be achieved the potential is exciting.

Benefits
Product Waste Reduction, Shelf life extension

Product Categories
Drinks, Food

Relevant Materials
Glass, Laminates, Liquid Beverage Cartons or other composites, Metal, Plastic – Flexible, Plastic – rigid, Plastics - Other / mixed

Relevant Packaging Formats
Bottles and jars, Cans

Supply Chain Phase
Filling, Processing, Storage

Details

Locking out oxygen is one of the primary functions of food and beverage packaging, but ongoing research suggests oxygen levels for shelf-stable foods are so high, the likelihood of delivering a quality product is remote, regardless of the package used. According to researchers in the University of Georgia's Department of Food Science and Technology dissolved and entrained oxygen introduced in production and during filling can add thousands of parts per million (ppm) of oxygen and cause quality degradation that defeats the functionality of air-tight containers. Continuous purging with inert gas throughout the production process can lower oxygen to innocuous levels, but achieving that with existing technology is a challenge.
 
Research leader Professor Aaron Brody cites the success of beer makers in filling plastic bottles with "very, very low levels of oxygen". To minimize quality deterioration with plastic bottles, brewers focused on micro-oxygen control in processing and filling. Very low oxygen levels have been achieved, but more work remains. By reducing total package oxygen below 50 parts per billion (ppb) major breweries can get 100 days shelf-life from plastic containers at ambient temperatures. At 25 ppb, the bottles have 200 days shelf-life; at 1 ppb, it stretches to 360 days. Skunkiness and bitterness are quality issues for beer, but virtually every other food product faces quality degradation because of oxygen.
 
Commercial retort and aseptic sterilization processes deliver biologically safe foods but leave enough oxygen to permit biochemical reactions. Lipid, protein and flavor oxidation as well as color changes occur over time, resulting in poor-quality foods. Biochemical reactions help explain why high temperature/short time (HTST) remains a niche application. Fewer nutrients are destroyed than with retort, but the presumed superior quality is often compromised. "There is a lot of praise for aseptic" Brody confirms "but sterility doesn't have anything to do with biochemical oxidation. Until you get the oxygen out, food isn't going to be stable". In conjunction with NASA's preparations for a flight to Mars, the university's researchers became involved in efforts to extend space food shelf life to five years. With oxygen levels of 6 to 7 percent, canned goods would degrade significantly during this period. Consequently, researchers are developing processing and packaging systems that can deliver foods with oxygen levels of 20 ppm or 0.0002 percent.
 
Conventional instrumentation used in food production cannot measure levels that low. To overcome this limitation the researchers are working with Hach Company. The firm's Orbisphere instruments employ electrochemical sensors that measure oxygen levels down to parts per billion. These sensors are used widely in commercial applications such as nuclear power plants, where monitoring of dissolved oxygen in cooling water is done to gauge corrosion potential. Brewers also have used Orbisphere to monitor oxygen and carbon dioxide in both liquid and gas phases of bottled beer. Creating a virtually oxygen-free environment is a challenge, even in the lab. Brody's colleagues built an airtight glove box to conduct experiments with high-acid products such as orange juice and applesauce. A nitrogen blanket is introduced while researchers work through the gloves to process and fill products. However, even the purity of food-grade nitrogen has been found to be insufficient. It contains more than 100 ppm oxygen and must therefore pass through a robust oxygen-scavenging system prior to entering the chamber. Hach have positioned a membrane-covered oxygen sensor inside the glove box to record actual process-oxygen levels. Because the device also measures partial pressure, the system can apply Henry's Law to calculate entrained and dissolved air inside the food products that are produced. The accuracy of the measurements is within 1 ppb. Looking beyond the current NASA project, the researchers hope to establish the commercial viability of investing in micro-oxygen processing and filling to produce shelf-stable products that retain their quality for years. "Is micro-oxygen the next major food preservation technology?"” Brody replies, "We like to think so."”

Potential Benefits

Locking out micro-oxygen could significantly extend the shelf-life of food stuffs, thereby reducing food wastage in the supply chain and in the home.

Intellectual Property

IP is the responsibility of University of Georgia and/or Packaging/Brody Inc., Duluth, GA (food packaging technology business owned by Professor Aaron Brody, who commented in  Jan 2011 "No intellectual property rights have been filed yet but all the paperwork has been recorded".

Consultant View

Breakthroughs in food preservation techniques are rare. Although this work is still at the research stage and any commercial applications are likely to be some way off, it is nonetheless important for food processing and packaging companies to follow the developments in this area of research which, if successful, could significantly raise the bar in food preservation and shelf-life possibilities.

Contacts and Further Information

Company details:
University of Georgia
Department of Food Science and Technology
Athens, GA 30602, USA
UGA Directory Assistance 706/542-3000

Technology contact details:
Aaron L. Brody, Packaging/Brody Inc.
Tel +770-613-0991
 
Associate Company
Kevin Sudderth, Hach Company
Tel: +770-271-6078
Email: ksuddert@hach.com

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