The steam infusion research project at the National Centre for Food Manufacturing (NCFM) at the Holbeach campus of the University of Lincoln forms part of a collaborative project aimed at providing safe and healthy foods funded by the UK Technology Strategy Board (TSB) under the Nutrition for Life initiative.
The work at Holbeach, which began in March this year, is being led by the university’s principal investigator Mike Dudbridge.
Steam infusion is a novel cooking process in which food products are heated and mixed near instantaneously in a partial vacuum using steam. It is claimed to be faster and more efficient than traditional methods of food processing, such as steam heated vessels and steam injection.
The process also appears to have a number of significant effects, which could benefit both taste and flavour, potentially enabling the production of healthier foods. For example, trials have shown steam infusion to increase the flavour profile of food products, allowing salt and fats to be reduced without negative impact.
The project aims to provide the scientific understanding of the changes brought about by the steam infusion process and the nutritional advantage to be gained, as well as minimising production time and reducing costs.
A Vaction steam infusion system from Olympus Automation, which has just changed its name to OAL Group, has been installed in the food factory process area at the Holbeach campus. Olympus Automation is a partner in the project, together with an unnamed own-label chilled food firm.
Steam infusion takes product to an exit temperature of 85°C at a rate of about 2,300kg/h. There are four units in line, which are fully controllable, allowing users to change the level of shear at each stage and vary temperature gain.
“At the moment we are focusing on the production challenges steam infusion can overcome,” says Jake Norman, export sales and marketing manager for OAL. “We have found steam infusion can make the impossible possible when processing certain heat sensitive products and hydrating grains, starches and polymers.
Drink for children
“For instance, we are installing a single 15,000kg/h system into Africa to make the maize-based drink Maheu. Steam infusion will instantly hydrate maize flour for a new healthy drink for children.
“The challenge for us now is engaging with manufacturers that are struggling and cannot make a product for a retailer and seeing if we can do it with steam infusion.”
In the past, attempts to apply the technology in food manufacture have sometimes failed because they were focused on products that were relatively easy to make, such as soups and sauces, “so there was no major drive to change”, remarks Norman. However, OAL has recently supplied new steam infusion installations to several UK companies. But, for commercial reasons, Norman will not reveal their names.
OAL has been shortlisted in the innovation category of the Food and Drink Federation’s 2014 awards, which will be announced at an awards ceremony in London on September 18.