How to convert your existing production line and ride the oat wave

When food producers see a new product come along and disrupt the industry the way oat-based beverages have, they can’t help but wonder: “How can we get in on the act?” There are two answers to that question: one is to buy a new processing line, such as our best-practice line for oat beverages; the other is to convert an existing line. Here’s a closer look at how to do the latter.

Selim Yildiz, category leader for plant-based beverages at Tetra Pak, said capitalizing on the surging popularity of oats will be easier for some producers than others.
“Converting from dairy to oat beverages is a relatively straightforward process,” Yildiz said. “But this will be much more complicated for producers of juices, nectars and still drinks (JNSD).”

Oat beverage in a Tetra Pak package

Opportunities for dairy producers

There are a lot of similarities between the process and the equipment required for production of milk and oat-based beverages (sometimes referred to as dairy alternatives). Ultra-high temperature (UHT) treatment, for example, is similar, but the process must be adapted to the different composition of oats.

Here are three scenarios for converting a dairy line:

Scenario 1:

Minimised investment cost when using either liquid oat compound or hydrolysed (enzymatically treated) oat flour as the starting raw material

This scenario offers the fastest time to market and gets your products on the shelves with the lowest possible capital expenditure (CAPEX). The upgrades described here are valid for both direct UHT units and indirect UHT units:

  • Add a Tetra Pak® High Shear Mixer to the line to mix oat raw materials with water, calcium, oil, salt, etc. to get the right mouthfeel and do the final formulation
  • Add deaerator (if there isn’t one already) into a Tetra Pak® Indirect UHT unit for better product quality
  • Increase the heat exchanger’s heat transfer area based on the new product specification and temperature program since plant-based beverages typically need more heating and cooling area compared to cow’s milk (Note: The heat exchanger shall be a tubular heat exchanger with product-to-water (CM Type) heat recovery)
  • Extension of holding tube may be needed as a higher heat load is recommended
  • Add flow control and capacity to the hot water circuit to adapt to every line’s specific conditions
  • Add a new cleaning-in-place (CIP) program and components to dose additional booster cleaning agent for efficient cleaning of the UHT unit; in case fibres might be present, a back-flush function and increase of CIP flows should be included
  • Upgrade homogenizer to work downstream of heat treatment for the indirect UHT unit
  • Upgrade certain homogenizer components to more robust materials as oat flour could be abrasive
  • If the existing UHT unit is outdated, a new control panel might be needed to accommodate the upgrades and software modifications

“The aim is to achieve a gentler heat treatment with a lower delta T to minimize fouling,” says Yildiz. “Aseptic homogenisation is preferable, as that gives the end product a smoother mouthfeel and prevents sandiness

” Yildiz estimates the total timeline for integrating the new process — including equipment installation, software updates and other details such as recommissioning the plant — could be four months or more, depending on existing equipment and site conditions.

Scenario 2:

Additional changes on top of Scenario 1 if non-hydrolysed oat flour is used as the starting raw material

In this case, the oat flour needs to go through an enzymatic treatment step. Therefore, a Tetra Pak® Extraction unit without the grinding unit needs to be added. The total cost of ownership (TCO) is improved; however, the investment cost is significantly higher compared to the first scenario.

  • Add a second high shear mixer to dissolve the oat flour before enzymatic treatment, including a feed system for flour
  • Add feed system for enzymes
  • Add temperature-controlled enzyme treatment section to hydrolyse and adjust sweetness of oat slurry
  • Add enzyme deactivation module, which stops enzymatic activities by heat treatment
  • Add fibre separation decanter to remove non-soluble components

Scenario 3:

Additional changes on top of Scenarios 1 and 2 if either oat grains or oat flakes are used as starting raw material

Similar to Scenario 2, the oat grains or flakes need to go through a grinding step followed by an enzymatic treatment step. A Tetra Pak® Extraction unit with all sub-units needs to be added. TCO is maximized, but keep in mind the initial investment cost is highest. This line setup is recommended to producers if the main SKUs will be oat products and there must be a certain production threshold for quick return on investment (ROI).

  • Add grinding unit to grind grains or flakes, including a grain/flake feeding system

Challenges for non-dairy producers

For JNSD producers, converting an existing production line to add oats can be more complicated and expensive.

“There are a lot more things to consider, from upgrading the self-CIP function of the pasteurizer, to converting the pasteurizer to a UHT unit, to adding a homogenizer,” Yildiz said. “Each specific site and existing equipment upgrade details should be evaluated very carefully. When you look at those costs and complexities, you may want to think about buying a new complete UHT line instead.”

Considerations for juice, nectar and still drink producers that have pasteurizers

In addition to the dairy-specific points described above, JNSD producers should also consider the following:

  • The central CIP station of the plant may need to add an acid tank, as JNSD production plants often do not include this step
  • Plate heat exchanger (PHE) type pasteurizers need to be upgraded to tubular heat exchanger (THE-CM) type UHT units for longer running hours
  • THE type pasteurizers need to be upgraded with more tubes, as a 95°C juice pasteurizer must operate as a UHT unit around 140°C
  • Add an aseptic Tetra Pak Homogenizer or upgrade the existing homogenizer to operate downstream
  • Add a Tetra Pak Aseptic Tank for higher product quality and reduced product losses
  • Add a dedicated Tetra Pak CIP unit to clean the aseptic tank or add a new pressure line to the existing CIP station

Yildiz advises liquid food producers of all shapes and sizes to carefully weigh the pros and cons of converting or investing in a new line before expanding into oat-based beverages, and in both cases to work with a trusted vendor to make the transition.

“Whichever path you choose, you need to be aware there is a considerable investment in time and resources required. But it could still be easier than you think, and the huge and growing consumer demand means for many producers the investment is absolutely worthwhile.”

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