Oat-based drinks are one of the hottest trends in today’s beverage market, and many businesses are eager to jump onboard. But in their rush to get products in consumers’ hands, are new players in this segment operating equipment in the optimal way? We talked to one expert about what producers need to think about to get the best possible results from their homogenizer.
When making an oat drink, homogenizers are critical for getting a smooth consistency that will appeal to consumers’ tastes. However, for beverage producers used to other types of ingredients – especially dairy – oats can pose unique challenges when it comes to homogenization.
“One of the biggest issues for many producers is around total cost of ownership and getting good economy on the machine,” explains Pavlos Kouroutsidis, a Homogenizer Application Specialist at Tetra Pak. “Oats can be more challenging than milk, for example, because they contain fibres that create more wear and tear on the homogenizer. This can lead to higher costs for maintenance and spare parts, but an optimal set-up for the homogenizer can reduce that impact.”
Homogenization pressure is another major concern. Many producers believe they need to run the homogenizer at very high pressures to achieve a smooth product. This leads to greater power consumption, meaning both higher energy costs and an increased carbon footprint. It also puts even greater stress on wear parts in the equipment.
“We see some oat drink producers running their homogenizers at pressures over 400 bar, because they assume this is necessary to ensure the right product quality,” says Kouroutsidis. “But it’s important to look at more than just the pressure. You need to consider the ingredients you’re using as well as the type of product you want to achieve. What size particles are you putting into the machine to start? And what size of particles do you need at the end to get the viscosity and mouthfeel your consumers are looking for?”
The choice of recipe is something that has a big impact on homogenization processes. While dairy producers around the world are generally working with similar types of raw materials, manufacturers of oat-based beverages have a larger range of ingredients to choose from. Whether you start with a whole grain oat or a ground oat flour, for example, will have a big impact on your downstream processing.
“Basically, the smaller the particles are when they go into the machine, the easier the job will be for the homogenizer,” says Kouroutsidis. “If you have a flour that is finely milled and well mixed, that’s going to be less abrasive and will reduce the wear and tear.”
For producers using whole oats instead, another option may be to add a pre-processing step to grind the oats, which can have a similar effect as using a finely milled flour. In either case, it is also possible to run the machine at a lower pressure, and thereby minimise energy consumption, since the particle size going into the homogenizer has already been reduced. As homogenizers can represent up to 15% of the energy needs in a typical oat drink processing line, this can mean fairly substantial savings.
According to Kouroutsidis, the most important thing is to measure the particle size fingerprint of the product when setting up the processing line. He sees many producers that skip this step, instead configuring their homogenizer based on limited sensory evaluation or experience from previous lines that used different types of equipment. With a better understanding of what the recipe requires and the qualities consumers want, it’s possible to optimise the homogenizer for long-term, reliable performance with greater energy efficiency.
“For businesses getting started in oat-based production and looking to get it right, Tetra Pak can help with these types of analyses,” Kouroutsidis notes. “We have food technologists on staff with a deep understanding of homogenization processes as well as over 30 years of experience in plant-based applications. We can work with customers to evaluate different options, such as wear-resistant contact parts, that can help them achieve quality production in the most cost-effective way for their particular needs.”