It’s been around for over 30 years, but pulse electric field (PEF) technology has recently been gaining serious traction as an alternative to thermal processing methods in the food industry.

PEF technology has the potential to revolutionise the sector, changing up the way a huge range of water-based products are processed – including grapes for wine, olives for oil, and tomatoes for canned goods – while simultaneously increasing product yields, raising productivity, and making healthier produce.

The European Federation of Food Science and Technology (EFFoST), an organisation established to further the development of sustainable and healthy food technology and processing methods across Europe is a partner in the FieldFOOD project, which aims to demonstrate the viability of the real-scale introduction of PEF technology in the industry.

Healthier food, more efficient processing

PEF technology is a non-thermal food processing method that can either be used as an additional treatment alongside extraction or cooking of ingredients, or as a measure to inactivate bacteria and microbes within food products, effectively pasteurising them.

The process is carried out by applying very short electrical pulses to the food in question, essentially creating small holes in the cells of the food, or of the bacteria. EFFoST project manager and FieldFOOD dissemination leader Hayley Every describes it as being “almost like taking a pin and poking little holes into the cells of the food, allowing whatever’s inside to be accessible to the outside world.”

Traditional sterilisation and pasteurisation methods normally use heat to process the product and eliminate bacteria, which isn’t typically very heat resistant. But as Every explains, the use of heat can negatively affect the quality of the food being processed: “For example when you pasteurise milk you pass it through a heat exchanger. The milk is heated for an extremely short period of time, yet the heat still has an impact on the quality of the product.

“Heat can deteriorate the nutrients in food. It caused changes in structure and texture, so working with a non-thermal process like PEF means you can retain the nutrients and the structure and quality of the product closer to its as-harvested state.” This retention of nutrients means a healthier end-product, and the ability to effectively pasteurise goods at such low temperatures means healthy food items that can be shipped over long distances since spoilage rates are reduced.

Yield levels are increased through the use of PEF, but the process is also quicker and more efficient than other methods, with less energy used. Every claims that in some cases, the increase in productivity and yield was so significant as to offset much of the cost of implementing the technology.

Not without its downsides

Despite its many benefits, PEF isn’t miracle technology, there are still notable downsides, though companies and research institutes are working to minimise their impact.

The biggest issue currently is that PEF requires water to be present in order to work, so for dry products the process is entirely out of the question. “It also seems that the composition of the foods affects the efficacy of the technology as well,” comments Every, “for example we’ve seen that some apples, if they’re very soft already, then there isn’t much of an advantage of using PEF to increase juice extraction.”

There’s also the price of the technology to consider, while PEF has been around for several decades, many companies developing the machinery focus on incorporating large units into their supply chain. Such equipment is very expensive and unavailable to the small SME’s that PEF would benefit most of all. To combat this problem, FieldFOOD has been looking into more portable options that could be rented out seasonally to smaller companies, which can then be returned once their processing period for the year is up.

What’s next for FieldFOOD?

The FieldFOOD project finishes at the end of March 2018, but this doesn’t mean EFFoST’s work is over. Once the results of the project are in, EFFoST hopes to communicate and disseminate the findings to the wider food industry, playing a supportive role to SME’s and food producers.

“We want to create awareness about the technology and to share updates regarding developments and link to stakeholders, and also try to develop potential exploitation strategies for how project partners can bring the product to the market or at least gain some benefit in their own businesses as a result of the project,” explains Every.

“By sharing the results of the project, we hope to be able to demonstrate to other companies that this is interesting technology that is worth investigating from their perspective.”