Health trends and developments among consumers pose challenges for food and beverage producers. But can equipment such as homogenizers turn those challenges into opportunities? Here we look into four current global trends and explore the role of homogenizers and homogenization in each.
In the aftermath of COVID, consumers are putting a greater emphasis on staying healthy. An Ipsos survey conducted in December of 2021 found that 62% of all Americans viewed health as being more important to them than it had been before the pandemic. For many, there is a greater focus on boosting immunity through foods perceived as healthy. Another 2021 survey found that “eating healthy” is a top priority for a majority of respondents in five major global markets, including almost 70% of consumers in China.
One way that many food and beverage producers are responding to this trend is with functional foods. This typically involves the addition of active ingredients that offer support for immunity and other health needs. One example is functional milk formulations that contain biologically active ingredients thought to prevent cardiovascular diseases. In many cases, however, the additional ingredients can alter the viscosity of the product, creating new challenges for the processing line.
A homogenizer for such applications needs to be flexible enough to deal with different formulations and with different viscosities. Some modern homogenizers can manage a wide range of recipes and viscosities without requiring rebuilding or a complicated set-up, and enable operators to change the recipe at the click of a button. As many ingredients used to bolter health claims can be more abrasive, it may also be necessary to choose a homogenizer with parts that offer greater wear resistance.
While dairy milk is a staple food and basic ingredient in many parts of the world, the number of people turning to plant-based alternatives for ethical, environmental or health reasons has continued to grow. In 2020, global consumption of plant-based drinks had risen to 41 billion litres – around 2% of the total beverage market share worldwide. All evidence suggests this percentage will continue to rise in the coming years.
A large and continuously growing range of plant-based options have sprung up in recent years, known by the abbreviation RNGS (rice, nuts, grains and soya). They are not just consumed by vegans. Health trends are driving the increase in so-called “flexitarian” behaviours, i.e., consumers choosing plant-based foods even when they do not follow strict vegetarian or vegan diets. In 2019, over 70% of global consumers surveyed reported that plant-based product concepts are appealing to them.
However, a challenge for producers entering this market is that the particles in plant-based ingredients – be it peanuts, soya, oats or rice – can be much more abrasive than traditional dairy ingredients. This can cause fast wear on the homogenizer. Producers of such drinks therefore need to carefully consider the durability of a homogenizer.
One way of dealing with this issue is to choose pistons and piston seals with harder materials such as tungsten carbide or ceramics. This keeps parts and maintenance costs low when processing abrasive particles of rice, nuts, grains or beans into drinks for a growing sector of the beverages market.
Although a growing market, plant-based products can meet resistance from a growing stigma associated with processed foods. Consumers who associate healthier choices with “all-natural” or “organic” claims are increasingly scrutinising the ingredient lists of food and beverage products. For example, a 2021 study showed that over two-thirds of Americans want food companies to be more transparent about how they manufacture their products.
This trend can be a challenge for producers of plant-based drinks that rely on additives and fortification to better provide the taste, mouthfeel and nutrients of traditional dairy beverages. According to Mintel’s global market research, 22% of Japanese consumers believe that plant-based foods are overly processed. In the United States, meanwhile, 20% of consumers said they want alternatives to dairy that are less processed.
Homogenization can sometimes eliminate the need for certain additives to meet these demands for a more natural product. In many cases, the function of additives is to increase viscosity, but this can often be done with homogenization alone. There are two main ways a homogenizer does this. Firstly, hydrogen bonds in fibres are broken down and replaced by hydrogen bonds with water. Secondly, the fibres’ naturally-occurring pectin (the substance that gives jam its sticky consistency) becomes more accessible.
Homogenization can also remove the need for artificial colouring. During homogenization, fruit and vegetable cells rupture and the particles become smaller. This improves the colour appearance. Homogenization also has an impact on flavours, minimising the need for artificial flavouring.
While many consumers are switching to plant-based beverages, the dairy industry is simultaneously seeing overall growth, particularly in premium, value-added product segments like yoghurt. A forecast from the British market research firm Technavio estimates that five-year total growth for the global yoghurt market will surpass 26 billion USD by 2023 – a growth rate of more than 5%.
A number of convergent trends are driving the new opportunities in this market. As consumers look for immunity-boosting foods, they are also understanding the impact our digestive systems have on overall health. For those looking for functional ingredients like probiotics, yoghurt has offered a natural source of friendly bacteria that improve gut health.
At the same time, consumers want products that both support a healthy diet and meet the needs of modern, fast-paced lifestyles. Yoghurt drinks, sports yoghurts and yoghurt-based smoothies can offer a fat-free and high-protein alternative that is also a fast and easy on-the-go option.
To make yoghurt drinks, many producers put fermented yoghurt through a homogenizer to liquefy it. For small or medium-sized dairies with a limited number of lines, they may be homogenizing milk one day and then yoghurt the next on the same line. There are therefore clear benefits to purchasing a homogenizer that can handle viscous products like yoghurt as well as milk without having to change the valves.
Homogenizers are also used to liquefy fruit for smoothies or juices. The soft pulp of fruit can be broken down in a homogenizer to smaller particles to give these products the right viscosity and mouthfeel.
To prepare for these new trends, read our white paper on “RNGS stability test” (rice, nuts, grain and soy)