Consumers increasingly demand additive-free foods that still look, taste, feel and last just like their nonorganic counterparts containing preservatives. To meet this need, food manufacturers have turned to high-pressure processing (HPP), which eliminates bacteria while maintaining product longevity and flavor consistency. Through this method, brands are able to deliver the quality their customers expect in a manner that can be presented as both natural and environmentally friendly.

Unlike other traditional processing methods, the HPP method utilizes a cold pasteurization sterilization technique that subjects prepackaged, watertight food products to high levels of hydrostatic pressure for anywhere from just a few seconds to a few minutes. Placing this extreme pressure on the food item destroys bacteria, yeast, molds, parasites and other viruses that can be present in food. The result is a food product that can last on the shelf up to 10 times longer than the norm, according to food innovation solutions provider True Fresh HPP, and requires fewer – or zero – chemicals and additives to stay safe for consumption.

Consumer demands drive industry change

With increasingly negative consumer attitudes toward preservatives, brands seek out fresh ingredients to provide the clean labels that promise natural contents. In fact, according to a 2014 shopping behavior survey by Statista, 36.2 percent of consumers almost always look for health claims when deciding to purchase a product, prioritizing manufacturing processes more than ever before.

Observing the current clean label trend, PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, created the Cold Pressure Council in March 2017. The council offers members a Cold Pressure Verified logo to affix to products properly manufactured with HPP. Council members are only permitted to use this logo after receiving third-party verification of their process, hazard analysis, critical control points plan and validation studies.

Placing this extreme pressure on the food item destroys bacteria, yeast, molds, parasites and other viruses that can be present in food. The result is a food product that can last on the shelf up to 10 times longer than the norm, according to food innovation solutions provider True Fresh HPP, and requires fewer - or zero - chemicals and additives to stay safe for consumption.

Launching in the spring of 2018, the logo is part of a larger effort from PMMI to promote industry standards and help consumers understand the HPP method.

Maximizing cost savings, food safety & sustainability

Satisfying consumer demand for healthy, natural products may be a crucial part of a brand’s choice to use HPP, but it is not the only benefit driving use of the method. The simplicity of the process means that it uses less energy than other methods, which is a significant draw for manufacturers aiming to reduce utility costs. Another important benefit of HPP is that the method can be utilized after the food has been placed in the package, so post-processing contamination is no longer a concern and recall rates can potentially go down. Often, HPP is handled by a co-packer, taking burden off the manufacturer.

Regardless of the party managing this stage of processing, the benefits of HPP can even extend to sustainability. Using only water and electricity that has been recycled, the method relies on reusable energy and resources. In a culture that is becoming ever more environmentally conscious, this factor offers a significant incentive for manufacturers to make the switch from other methods like microwave pasteurization, which cannot make the same sustainability claims and also faces problems with validation and cost.

Adoption goes global

Some companies have already invested in HPP, recognizing the benefits for their customers, the environment and their own bottom lines. Greek yogurt company Infantis began using HPP to extend the shelf life of the packaged meat products it ships throughout the Greek islands. Partnering with HPP provider Avure Technologies, Infantis found an HPP-focused solution for its FreshPress product line. The line subsequently became one of the company’s most successful to date, experiencing a 30 percent increase in sales. Utilizing this processing method also decreased the number of customer returns of spoiled products that were improperly protected throughout the cold chain. Ultimately, return rates dropped low enough that Infantis was able to boast greater customer satisfaction and recover the cost of the new HPP equipment within the year.

While most investments in HPP are still in the early stages, the expanding market for the technology shows no signs of shrinking. Overall growth of the method has pushed the HPP industry to reach a value of $12 billion per year, according to Jeff Williams, Cold Press Council chairman and CEO of Avure Technologies. North America currently makes up 60 percent of this budding market, says Williams, due to Western consumers’ demand for natural food preservation methods. Echoing this industry growth, in December 2017, True Fresh HPP purchased a fourth HPP machine for their Southern California facility. This addition increased the facility’s annual capacity of HPP tolling services to 100,000 lbs.

Industry applications

The HPP method is most commonly used for meat and poultry, with those sectors accounting for the largest portion of the market. However, the method is also popular with seafood producers. According to PMMI’s 2017 Trends Shaping Meat, Poultry, and Seafood: Market Segment Report, 36 percent of poultry and seafood companies use HPP as result of consumer demands for additive-free foods that still taste and feel fresh. When it comes to meat, producers use HPP to kill contaminants on raw meat and to assist with post-packaging, tenderizing and shucking. Beyond these market segments, HPP is also emerging in the juice and beverage sectors, as well as in vegetables and fruits, for which perishability is a critical concern.

Globally, HPP may continue to gain traction in developing markets for ready-to-eat foods. For example, North American and European producers of rice and grains have discovered that the method breaks down the allergic protein content of grains and makes them safe to consume, which helps them meet rising market demand for ready-to-eat products. It also delivers extra advantages by extending shelf life, destroying harmful pathogens and improving overall product quality. Noticing these benefits, HPP has been picked up by developing markets. Areas like the Middle East and Asia Pacific, where consumption rates of rice and grains are high, are beginning to adopt the processing method on a smaller scale.

high-pressure processing

An HPP machine from Avure (Image courtesy of Avure Technologies)

E-commerce drives expansion

As HPP takes hold across the globe, it will only be bolstered by the international growth of e-commerce and the trend of online food shopping. With HPP allowing natural, organic and health products to stay fresh for a longer duration, food processed with this method is suitable for direct-to-door grocery delivery and eliminates preservation concerns currently associated with shipping and the supply chain. It also enables manufacturers to trust that their products can land in the hands of customers around the world and arrive without quality being compromised.

Between the benefits of lengthened shelf life, natural processing, flavor preservation and pathogen removal, HPP may be the method that satisfies both consumer demand and brand requirements. Bringing the benefits of thermal processing methods while eliminating their drawbacks and exemplifying all definitions of “natural,” HPP has the potential to outperform other technologies and take hold on a major scale.

Sean Riley is senior director, Media and Industry Communications, for PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. PMMI represents more than 800 North American manufacturers and suppliers of equipment, components and materials as well as providers of related equipment and services to the packaging and processing industry.