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Industry Report: Natural Food’s HPP

By Jamie Siebrase | Jul 25, 2015

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"This is the Silicon Valley of food," says Pressery owner Ian Lee about the Denver-Boulder corridor where innovation in healthy food is as prevalent as sunshine.

Coloradans are informed buyers, after all, with unsurpassed appreciation for nutrition, and we're physically situated at the heart of a coast-to-coast quest for natural fare -- meaning we want organic, additive-free, and minimally processed sustenance.

That's good news, and it's bad news, too: The all-natural push makes it easier for healthy, homegrown startups to get off the ground, but more difficult for them to expand beyond regional distribution.

Selling hyper-locally is simple for folks like Lee: A mom-and-pop biz makes small batches of its stuff in a Colorado facility and hocks those fresh goods at nearby farmers markets and stores to buyers for quick consumption.

Take HOPE Foods, maker of the state's first high-pressure processed organic hummus, lentil dips, and chickpea-based chocolate spreads.

"We didn't do anything to our product when we started out, and we didn't have to," says Marketing Director Will Burger. "But, you start to ship nationally, and the product changes hands several times and sits on shelves longer, so there's more of a risk of spoilage."

As time passes, disease-causing pathogens called mycobacteria -- present in all food -- grow and multiply until the food becomes inedible. "Especially with hummus and other dips and spreads, you need a kill step," says Burger.

There are several available: drying food, treating it with chemicals called preservatives or using thermal pasteurization will nix yeast, mold, and bacteria.

Pasteurization gives manufacturers an alternative to pumping a product full of preservatives, true, but the popular heat treatment isn't exactly natural. "The biggest problem with pasteurization," says Burger, "is that it kills the health benefits and taste."

Nutrients, vitamins, and antioxidants can be damaged or reduced during pasteurization. All of HOPE's spreads are USDA-certified organic, non-GMO, gluten free and kosher. Pressery, too, is "putting tremendous amounts of high-cost produce into bottles," says Lee, adding, "To immediately heat it and reduce the nutrient quality seemed counterintuitive."

Food scientists have experimented with gentler pasteurization processes, including radio frequency and ultraviolet treatment, which aren't particularly effective. High-pressure processing, though, has fixed natural manufacturers' traveling conundrum.

Bacteria can't survive under pressure. The high-pressure process imparts 87,000 pounds of isostatic pressure per square inch on food or beverages -- that's six times the pressure you'd find at the base of the ocean -- to squeeze the life out of microbes, all without affecting the product itself. It's called "5-log bacterial reduction," meaning just one microbe of 100,000 survives.

Burger breaks down the process: "You produce the product, seal it and put it into this capsule. Next, you put a few hundred units of product into a giant tube that goes into your HPP machine, which fills with water, as pressure permeates the packaging to destroy pathogens." Because HPP is non-thermal, food and beverages aren't exposed to high, degrading temperatures.

Pressure of the magnitude found in HPP machines has long been used on metals, with the first experiments recorded in 1884. It wasn't until the 1990s in Japan, though, that the technology was used in commercial food production.

During that decade Fresherized Foods founder Don Bowden bought several HPP machines for manufacturing his legendary Wholly Guacamole, bringing the emergent technology stateside. Bowden's premiere machines held seven or so pounds of avocados. Today's machines, by contrast, hold up to 400 pounds, and the vessels are guaranteed for 100,000 cycles.

The technology's since been applied to wet salads, spreads, juices, and coconut water, and the majority of HPP operating systems reside in North America, where industry understanding of HPP and its 5-log bacterial reduction has grown, drawing new processors.

HOPE had passed on HPP earlier. When President Robbie Rech first heard about it he thought, "This isn't for us: It's too expensive, no one in Colorado is doing, it and we just don't know how to get it done."

"When we decided HPP would be the way to go," he continues, "we found companies using HPP in Texas, in California, and some on the East Coast, but no one in Colorado." Initially, HOPE explored processing its hummus in another state. But, around December 2012, Rech thought, "Why shouldn't HPP come to Colorado?'"

HOPE bought a building in the Colorado Technology Center in Louisville, and purchased its own HPP machines. Other companies like Pressery and Blue Moose of Boulder outsource their processing.

Since 1997, Blue Moose -- under the Blue Moose of Boulder and Ciolo brands -- has been crafting natural hummus, salsas, pesto, tapenades and spreads for the greater Denver area. The company was making hummus long before hummus was cool, and established its reputation as an industry leader focused on delivering great flavor via pure, simple ingredients.

Back in the '90s, other manufacturers "loaded things up with preservatives and shipped 'em everywhere," recalls Blue Moose GM Bert Sartori, adding, "Our customers appreciated that we were all-natural before it was en vogue."

Blue Moose "started looking into [HPP] three or four years ago, and didn't have much success," says Sartori. About two years ago, though, Blue Moose "put some significant money behind the product development" by involving its chef and food scientists, and after tweaking its form, Blue Moose has been HPP-ing most of its products since last summer.

"The U.S. has been slow in getting behind HPP, and we're still trying to get the word out," says Burger. There's even been some backlash, especially in the juice industry.

In 2013, plaintiffs sued Hain Celestial over the marketing of its BluePrint high-pressure processed juices, claiming the company needed to change its labels touting the beverages as "unpasteurized" and "100 percent raw" because HPP "neutralizes the benefits of the live enzymes, probiotics, vitamins, proteins, and nutrients that would otherwise be retained in raw and unpasteurized juice."

A U.S. district judge dismissed the suit with prejudice the following July, though, because the plaintiff had submitted academic papers that undermined his own case that concluded pressurization has little to no effect on nutritional and sensory quality aspects of foods.

Other juice companies still target Lee, though, "saying HPP is something bad that makes the juice less fresh." Lee disagrees, and science has his back.

A 2014 study from the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Food Safety and Health found HPP might offer the "greatest promise" for delivering on consumer demands for safety and nutrition.

According to that study, "In contrast to bioactive composition losses during thermal processing, HPP offers the benefit of retaining the nutritive value in juices without compromising food safety." The FDA corroborates this, stating, "Pressures used in the HPP of foods appear to have little effect on covalent bonds; thus, foods subjected to HPP treatment at or near room temperature will not undergo significant chemical transformations due to the pressure treatment itself."

When it comes to hummus, at least, consumers don't need all that fancy jargon; they can tell Blue Moose and HOPE's stuff is fresh the moment they lift the seal. "If you purchase big-box name hummus, you'll see it is swirled perfectly, and there's a little dollop of garlic and pine nut puree on top -- that's because it was pasteurized and has preservatives in it," explains Burger, whose stuff looks and tastes real, like something you'd make in your blender.

HPP works, but it wasn't without risk: The technology is expensive, "millions more than pasteurization," says Burger. And, adds Sartori, there have been ongoing costs, including those associated with rebranding.

To HPP, a company's packaging must withstand extremely high pressure. Both HOPE and Blue Moose rebranded when they added the process.

"Our existing packaging wasn't suitable for it," explains Sartori. "It was important to keep the clear, square container even when a lot of people were pushing us to go different ways for HPP; square lets retailers get more on their shelves, and it reduces our environmental footprint during shipping because you can fit more containers in the trucks."

"We weighed pros and cons against the cost, and in the end we're happy we moved forward with HPP," Sartori says. Burger, too, thinks HPP is a risk that's more than paid off: "We've pretty much tripled sales since last year by opening up new regions. HPP is revolutionizing the natural food industry. Our goal was to be on the cutting edge of that, and we are."

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