Makers of processed food are having understandable trouble with the government's recent recommendation that half of our plates -- or, more appropriately, our takeout bags, pizza boxes, sandwich wrappers and microwave trays -- should consist of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables, after all, aren't exactly the kind of ultra-convenient, low cost food ingredients manufacturers like to work with.
But one company thinks it's found a way for the food industry to get more fruits and vegetables into its products -- by pulverizing them.
At the massive Institute of Food Technologists conference earlier this week, PowderPure, a company based in Dallesport, Wash., showcased its ability to use infrared light to transform fruits and vegetables into colorful powders. Unlike existing technologies for doing this -- namely freeze drying and spray drying -- PowderPure's "fruits" and "vegetables" retain almost all of their nutrients and their taste for more than a year. Typically, nutrient loss from the more intensive processes of freeze drying and spray drying can be up to 50%.
Peter Piper packed a peck of powdered peppers
This represents one particularly innovative way the food industry could help boost the amount of fruits and vegetable Americans eat, by tucking them into our favorite processed foods. At his modestly-sized IFT booth, CEO Mark Savarese told me that his powders are currently being used in nutritional powered beverages and energy bars, and that he was in the process of expanding to more general packaged food categories, such as nacho chips (though not necessarily Doritos) and candy.
Savarese went on to explain how the technology works: PowderPure uses a specific wavelength of infrared light that only targets an object's water molecules, efficiently evaporating them within 10 minutes. In goes whole strawberries or strawberry puree; out comes tasty, bright red strawberry powder with nearly all the nutrients and fiber of the original. "Because the moisture evaporates so quickly, the nutrients self-encapsulate, which prevents any oxygen from getting in," he said, a rainbow of powder-filled jars glistening behind him.
A chemical engineer, Savarese said his powders are priced comparably with spray dried and freeze dried alternatives because his process uses significantly less energy.
Trickier than whole wheat
After the government's 2005 update to the dietary guidelines, food manufacturers raced to take advantage of the guidelines' advice to boost whole grain consumption, working whole wheat and other grains into everything from breads and crackers to frozen pizza and Froot Loops.
Compared to fruits and vegetables, whole grains were easy since wheat flour is one of the building blocks of processed food. Broccoli and blueberries, not so much.
It's one thing for your breakfast cereal to miraculously contain the powdered equivalent of a whole banana. Of course, the other way to do it is just to eat an actual banana, or some actual broccoli or blueberries. ("Just eat a goddamn vegetable once in a while," the Onion exhorts).
Savarese said he thinks people should absolutely be eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, but that it's simply not always possible. "They're not grown all the time and we can't always get them," he said. "This is a way to make fruits and vegetables more available and maybe help deal with the huge percentage of crops that don't make it to market. Plus, it's better to have our powders with all their nutrients in a packaged food than fillers or corn starch."
After having visiting the IFT booths of no fewer than a dozen different companies selling fancy versions of corn starch, I can attest that, on this count, Savarese has a point.
Image by Flickr user Carol Moshier