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    Perfect Match: brewing technology for food alternatives

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    29. November 2023
    6:15 min.

    More and more people are making a conscious choice to do without animal products. That has triggered a corresponding boom on the market for vegan alternatives. But the food categories now emerging are uncharted terrain not only for consumers. Many of the companies making them are also start-ups and therefore newcomers in the sector. So it is good to know they can rely on Krones expertise for their manufacturing plant.

    Vegan beverages and foods that substitute animal products are based on alternative proteins. Without a doubt, the best-known example here is plant-based drinks, which are simply blended from grains, water and additional ingredients like oil. Depending on the process variant and production output involved, standard process engineering equipment or mashing systems can be used for making them.

    But the market offers far more than “just” plant-based products. Nowadays, countless vegan alternatives are available on supermarket shelves. And the growth forecast for the market segment that is emerging as a result of this new nutritional trend makes one thing abundantly clear: The industry needs many different potential sources that are able to produce large quantities of alternative proteins. In order to create and prepare such sources, the sector relies on technologies like precision fermentation and cell cultivation.


    And that is precisely where we come full circle because with its brewing technology the Krones Group opens up major opportunities and valuable synergies for the new food trend in terms of process engineering, as Alexander Scheidel, Head of Alternative Food Processing at Steinecker, explains: “Understanding the intricacies of process engineering in the food industry, in beer brewing for example, is the best precondition for large-scale production of alternative proteins. That means we can draw upon our experience in industrial biotechnology and use it for making alternative foods.”

    If you want to learn more about the synergies between brewing and alternative food processing, read the article below. It gives you a good overview by explaining the most important technological foundations and showing parallels between tried-and-tested methods used in brewing technology and possible options for making vegan food.

    What exactly is precision fermentation?

    In precision fermentation, microorganisms are programmed or optimised so that it is possible to create certain products like enzymes, fats, proteins, vitamins, flavourings and natural pigments. The microbes act as “cell factories” and are able to selectively generate organic molecules. Medicines like insulin and food enzymes like rennet have already been made in this way for decades. After selecting and developing the microorganism, it is cultivated together with an appropriate nutrient solution in fermentation tanks under controlled conditions. The composition of the nutrient mix and properly matched process parameters will thus create the desired molecule, which is obtained as a product and purified. Proteins made by fermentation can then be combined with other ingredients and further processed in order to imitate meat, egg or milk products.


    What does a bioreactor do?

    The bioreactor is an example of a fermentation tank. Basically, it is a closed sterile tank with familiar steam and/or condensate barriers. The bioreactor performs functions like homogenising, mixing, aerating and filling, and permits sampling – all of that in a sterile environment. 

    The core task of an efficient fermentation process is to circulate the tank volume under sterile conditions, thus ensuring that the microorganisms are continuously supplied to optimum effect. This task is usually handled by an agitator, something that pays off mainly for smaller batch sizes. But Steinecker uses a circulation system instead in order to implement cost-efficient production of large quantities as well. The circulation system is equipped with aseptic valve technology from Evoguard and a low-shear aseptic pump.

    Customers here benefit from Steinecker’s long years of experience because Poseidon, the company’s tried-and-tested fermentation unit which works on the same basic principle, has proven its usefulness in the brewing arena. “In any kind of fermentation process, it is essential to ensure that the cells are reliably supplied with nutrients to stimulate their metabolism and proliferation. The carbon dioxide produced during alcoholic fermentation generates natural convection inside the tank without adding any other components, a condition which is supported by the circulation system. All of that combines to increase the cells’ vitality and viability,” says Alexander Scheidel. “In the case of precision fermentation and biomass production, this natural convection is not sufficient. Depending on the cells’ size and their ability to withstand shear forces, the unit’s design is based on the flow conditions inside the tubes and the tank, so as to ensure cells are distributed throughout the tank, and concentration and temperature differentials are evened out.”

    Image 38117
    Steinecker’s bioreactor was premiered at the BrauBeviale 2023. It holds 500 litres and is used to produce ten to twenty per cent biomass.

    The bioreactor from Steinecker is especially well suited for producers wanting to operate on a large scale. That is because, for tanks larger than 25,000 litres especially, it is far easier and more cost-effective to integrate a circulation system than an agitator. The circulation system can also be retrofitted to existing tanks. In each case, Steinecker designs its bioreactors to precisely match the fermentation process and the customer’s wishes and seamlessly integrates them into an overall line concept. Steinecker always takes a flexible approach, accounting for each customer’s individual specifications. As such, the company can also deliver conventional bioreactors featuring an agitator instead of a circulation system.

    And what happens after fermentation?

    The cells or the molecules generated in the bioreactor which are passed into the culture medium can be used, for example, to make meat substitutes based on the mushroom biomass or microalgae biomass involved, or to derive proteins that can be used in food production. The downstream process starts with harvesting the cells replicated, after which they are purified, concentrated and stabilised.

    • If biomass is the only valuable material targeted, the cells are separated from the nutrient solution directly after fermentation and washed. The cell mass is here also concentrated, so that in the next step it can be made into the final patty or another form. During downstream processing, more ingredients are added, such as plant-based proteins, aroma compounds or substances that give the end product the taste and texture required.
    • If the valuable material is one of the molecules generated, e.g. a protein, it must be extracted from the cell mass. Depending on the process involved, this is done by splitting the cells so as to release the protein, followed by several filtration steps in order to obtain the desired product.

    The central fermenting technology thus offers a wide range of options for manufacturing various products that are made into food or actually are the food as in the case of cultured meat.

    Image 38113
    Alexander Scheidel, Head of Alternative Food Processing at Steinecker

    What are the challenges we will have to face in future?

    One demanding aspect will doubtless be how to re-use the nutrient solution that is left after the cells have been separated from the surrounding liquid, i.e. after cell harvesting. This byproduct constitutes a large quantity of wastewater that has to be treated and requires additional equipment. On the other hand, preparing the nutrient solution is a major cost factor which can be substantially reduced by recovering these nutrients. And making full use of the byproducts for other fields of industry, such as fertilisers for agriculture, also offers potential for upgrading efficiency. Apart from increasing effective recovery of nutrients, energy-efficient production is another crucial imperative for new food markets. Only when energy and media flows are designed for an optimal match can energy peaks be avoided and sustainability targets be reached.

    Steinecker: a can-do partner

    Although production of vegan food alternatives by means of precision fermentation is still a relatively new line of business, Steinecker is the ideal partner for both current and prospective customers. “Our experience in plant manufacturing and brewing technology enables us to design systems meeting all individual specifications. As explained above, it is in fact true that the basic principles underlying fermentation are always the same. But Steinecker in each case designs its systems together with the customer to make sure they precisely match the specific requirements involved, thus laying the foundations for successful project implementation and a long-term mutually supportive partnership,” emphasises Alexander Scheidel.

    29. November 2023
    6:15 min.

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