While lucrative, there are many pitfalls to avoid for food, milk or beverage producers looking to expand into oat beverages. “There’s a lot to learn in this field,” says Ola Funkquist, a Technical Line Solution Manager for Plant-Based Products at Tetra Pak. “But we’ve gleaned many useful insights and knowledge from over 20 years of working with oats that benefit our customers greatly.”
Oat beverages have come a long way since food scientist Rickard Öste created a drink from milled oats in the mid-1990s at Sweden’s Lund University. Developed initially to provide a milk substitute for the lactose intolerant, oat-based drinks are now booming – globally, the market is projected to reach USD 6.8 billion by 2026, with an average annual growth rate of 13.4%.
Anyone looking at oats as a potential product has many issues to consider. Firstly, you need to choose your raw material – grain, flour, or compound. You can produce an oat base using all three, but, says Funkquist, “the process will look different depending on what you select.” Start with a compound – basically an oat base prepared by someone else – and you need only add calcium, salts, vegetable oil, and then package. “It’s a straightforward process and gets you to market fast, but you have limited knowledge about how the base was produced, and it’s far less flexible in terms of tweaking the final product,” says Funkquist. “It’s also more costly in the long run.”
With grains or flour, you have control over the whole process and can adjust all the settings in your process to produce different outputs. “For grains, you’ll need a wet grinder – for flour, a mixer,” says Funkquist, “but aside from that, the process is very similar.” Plus, he notes that this allows you to tell a story as a brand, from plant to package, which can be useful for marketing purposes.
Having settled on a raw material, there are many further considerations when buying an oat line. Finding a good transferring system for the dry, raw material to the wet system can be challenging. “Flours can be difficult to transfer as they are very fatty,” says Funkquist. It’s also advantageous to look for a line that can run a continuous process for a long time, and one that gives you efficiency and reliability. “You want a consistent quality that can run continuously – then you’ll produce in the most cost-effective way.”
You also need to understand what ingredients are required to achieve your desired product functionalities – and how to treat them. But the real key in an oat processing system is understanding the interplay between three vital stages – preparing a slurry, hydrolyzing that slurry, and then removing the fibres in a separation step. “You need to balance these three and understand how they rely on each other,” says Funkquist. “Based on that, you can optimize your system accordingly and produce a good quality beverage.”
When it comes to separation, adjusting the settings in the decanter leads to different product qualities – it takes “solid knowledge” to achieve your desired outcome. “Once again, it’s a balance,” says Funkquist. “How much protein and fibre do you want in your beverage, as opposed to less protein and fibre? This affects mouthfeel and taste, and the yield too.”
So, what are the common pitfalls producers should be aware of? One is the push to achieve ever-higher yields. “Of course, you want a high yield, and it’s tempting to achieve this by adding more suspended solids to the beverage. But that will have an impact on taste and other functionalities.”
Another relates to hydrolyzation and the treatment of enzymes. “Sometimes producers believe they need a relatively complicated hydrolyzation, but it’s possible to simplify it and achieve the same quality,” says Funkquist. “That way, you reduce both your initial investment and the operational cost.” There is also a microbial aspect to overdoing the hydrolyzation, and it’s all too easy to end up with serious issues here.
Optimizing the heat treatment unit with the upstream system to achieve the required product quality is crucial to reducing operational costs. “It’s a balancing act,” says Funkquist. There are also various heat treatment solutions with different pros and cons. “An indirect system uses much less steam, but the quality will be somewhat affected. On the other hand, a direct system with instant cooling gives you premium quality, but steam consumption will be higher.”
Cleaning can also be tricky, particularly with older systems. “It’s not like cleaning milk – it’s quite challenging,” says Funkquist. “You have to really understand the product and the residues it produces in order to clean properly, but we have developed special cleaning programs to ensure cleanability – it’s a unique ability that Tetra Pak has.” As an example, he cites a new cleaning method for heat treatment units that has been implemented over the last twelve months.
And, of course, research and development is ongoing; while Funkquist notes that Tetra Pak is “quite mature when it comes to oats”, there is a commitment to deepening knowledge in order to serve our customers better. For example, investigating how high a heat load is required to deactivate specific enzymes is a current focus, as is continued experimentation and trials with decanters. Then there’s blending oats with other plant-based raw materials like flax seeds, hemp, and fava beans – “things that are high in protein, but where the taste is a challenge,” says Funkquist.
Ultimately, any food producer looking to move into oats needs to define their strategy – do you want to become a premium producer with a focus on innovation, or a cost optimizer with a focus on the basics such as reducing energy consumption and waste? Do you need the flexibility to produce other plant-based products, or even dairy products? How complete a control system do you need for your line, to deal with raw material consumption, recipes, and traceability?
And to get answers to all these, you need a supplier with documented long-term experience in oats specifically, and with the expertise and backing to ensure production is a success. “We have decades of experience now,” says Funkquist, “so whatever your goals, we can help you achieve them.”