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Grant could help introduce new technology to chipping industry

Potatoes come out a machine after undergoing through a “pulse electric field” process. A Boise State University researcher and Boise-based company have received a grant that will help them try to refine an existing technology that could help the potato chipping industry.

By Bill Schaefer

For Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

Idaho may be the big dog in the North American potato industry but there’s always room for growth.

Looking to advance Idaho’s footprint in the potato processing industry, the Idaho Department of Commerce recently awarded an Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission grant of $291,770 to Boise State University, which will partner with Food Physics, based in Boise, to help develop technology that could benefit the potato chip and snack food industries.

The technology is already used in the French fry industry but the grant money will be used to try to refine the process so it can be used economically in the potato chipping and snack food industries.

IGEM grants serve as a bridge for university researchers to collaborate with Idaho private sector businesses to enhance, cultivate and potentially establish new economic opportunities in the state.

This particular IGEM grant was awarded Feb. 23 to Boise State University researcher Owen McDougal and Food Physics to research and advance development of something known as “pulsed electric field” technology to reduce sugars and amino acids in potatoes, ultimately resulting in a potential reduction of acrylamide in the production of potato chips.

Acrylamide is a chemical that can form in some starchy foods, including French fries and potato chips, when they are cooked at high temperatures. Some groups have warned the chemical is potentially dangerous to human health.

Food Physics, in conjunction with a company based in Germany, is the exclusive licensee of PEF technology systems for North America, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Jim Gratzek is the technical director and Carl Krueger is the head of engineering for Food Physics in Boise.

PEF technology exposes vegetable cell walls to short, micro-second bursts of electricity as it passes through a water bath. The pulse electrical field creates a permeability and tissue softening of the cell wall, resulting in leakage of cell juice and a loss of reducing sugars and amino acids in the course of the process.

The technology was first discovered in the late 1950s by German engineers and today it is considered to be the industry standard in French fry production throughout the world.

The adoption of this new technology by French fry producers over the past decade has resulted in notable advances in less use of water, energy and frying oil, along with complementary savings costs.

Evidence of PEF’s cost-savings potential can be found in a 2014 report from Simplot Australia. The document cites a significant global savings of water and energy using PEF technology in the company’s potato manufacturing process.

According to the report, “the conventional method of potato cutting involves a step where the potatoes may be submerged in hot water in excess of (122 degrees Fahrenheit) for more than 40 minutes.”

The report stated that the use of PEF technology was able to replace this pre-heating step. PEF advantages cited by the report included reduced energy and water costs along with better cutting quality, higher yield and no negative impact on potato texture.

The IGEM grant will be used by McDougal, a BSU professor and chairman of the university’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, and Food Physics to research the impact of pulse electric field technology in potato processing production with an emphasis on chipping potatoes and other root vegetables.   

McDougal said the funding will be used to hire people to aid in the research.

“We’ll be able to hire a Ph.D. scientist that will be able to work between Food Physics and Boise State,” he said. “(The position) will be an integral liaison to bridge the scientific gap between the private industry and the academic environment.”

For Food Physics, the grant is an opportunity for the company to market a technology to the potato chip and snack food industry that has become the industry standard for French fry producers.

“The luxury that this grant provides us is to kind of go deep for a company that frankly doesn’t have the financial fire power yet to go that deep,” Gratzek said.

Gratzek is cautious when discussing the impact PEF has on reducing the amount of acrylamide in fried foods. He presents PEF as a “technique, when applied with other things,” that can result in lower acrylamide levels.

“Not that PEF drops acrylamide but PEF changes, say, the leaching phenomenon into water (and) it also changes the frying rates, both of which will lead to lower acrylamides,” he said.

“Sugar, temperature, time, moisture level, those are all the inputs for how much acrylamide you get at the end of a frying process,” Gratzek said.

The reduction of solids in the form of reducing sugars and amino acids allows potato processors to replace or reduce the amount of hot water blanching or pre-heating in French fry and chip production, he said.

“If blanching is used to soften alone, (PEF) can eliminate the blanching process,” said Gratzek.

Another cost-saving advantage of the technology is the reduction in the wear of the cutting blades used in the fry and chip making process. The PEF technology softens the cell walls, making potatoes easier to cut.

Krueger said that a common thread of concern among food manufacturers when considering new technology is what is known in the food industry as “mouth feel.”

Mouth feel is a term used to convey that quality unique to a specific brand. Whether it’s the secret formula or secret sauce, companies are extremely protective of their brand identity and preserving customer loyalty.

“We actually ran into that with a large food-service customer who didn’t want their product to change because we were changing technology,” said Krueger.

He said Food Physics was able to prove that the PEF process would produce the exact same French fry that company always produced.

Gratzek believes that advances in PEF technology will help mainstream its acceptance in the chip and snack industry in the future but he also recognizes that the food industry is not always quick to accept innovations.

“Technology adoption in industry, especially the food industry, is typically pretty slow,” he said. “It has to solve a significant problem, bring significant value in terms of new product (or) new innovation, or it has to save a lot of money.”      

Gratzek thinks that one of the reasons PEF technology might be adopted faster in the future is because Food Physics has developed the knowledge and application techniques that have in the past been proprietary information kept in-house by the chip manufacturers.

“I think that this grant is especially helpful for us in that it will allow us to do the research in Boise and Boise State such that we can with great specificity solve the issues that the customers have,” Gratzek said.

If they want less oil, we’ll help them with that; if they want to keep the oil but (achieve) lower, better frying rates, we’ll be able to help them with that,” he said.