Food in a BOX

Processing food on the farm

Healthy and safe food

WUR has a great deal of experience with turning waste streams into something of value. Photo: Shutterstock

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

How efficient and sustainable would it be if farmers and small agricultural businesses no longer had to send their products to a food processing factory, but could preserve, dry and pack the produce on the farm instead? Scientists at Wageningen University & Research are collaborating with European colleagues to explore the options for local food processing.

‘Food in a box’ may sound like the meal kits and boxes of produce you can get from local farmers but that is not the case for this European food-processing-in-a-box project (FOX). The boxes in question are somewhat larger than a cardboard box or crate, explains scientific coordinator Ariette Matser, who works for Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, part of Wageningen University & Research (WUR). “FOX stands for ‘Food processing in a box’. Our boxes are mobile hubs, containers that can be installed on the premises of a grower or a cooperative association, for instance. We want to use those hubs to process fresh fruit and vegetables using innovative techniques. Examples are preserving juices, drying of vegetables or packing the produce sustainably. The hub functions as a kind of mini-factory that is transported to another site after the food has been processed.” Technology that is usually used in large factories is being transformed into small, flexible, mobile units for application in the hubs. Matser says the advantage of the approach is that it gives small businesses and farmers access to the latest techniques without them having to invest in this equipment. The hubs are still under development but the intention is that they can be hired for limited periods.

We want to use the mobile hubs to preserve juices, to dry vegetables or to pack the produce sustainably

3D Model of a mobile fruit processing unit. Video: FOX

This short supply chain offers commercial opportunities for small agricultural businesses and farmers because it makes them less dependent on manufacturers for processing their products. It could also be more sustainable because it cuts out the transport from the farm to the factory. Another advantage is that consumers will be able to see what has to be done to give them their glass of juice or their dried mushrooms. The idea is that this will boost appreciation of locally grown and processed produce. In this way, the hubs will have an educational effect.

Mild techniques

In the hub, the products will come straight from the farm and undergo ‘mild’ processing, without intense heating and so forth. Such mild processing techniques retain the beneficial properties of the fruit and vegetables to a greater extent. Matser cites pulsed electric fields (PEF) as an example of a mild processing technique. “We are experimenting with pulsed electric fields for preserving juices. These are very brief electric pulses that rupture bacterial membranes so that the juice has a longer shelf life. This is done at lower temperatures than traditional sterilisation and pasteurisation, so it consumes less energy and retains more of the fresh flavour.” PEF can also be used as a preparatory treatment when drying apples, berries or mushrooms. “One of the hubs will be a mobile drying unit. The electric pulses also destroy the membranes of plant cells, which allows the moisture to be released more quickly. That means the products do not spend so long in the drying oven, which in turn saves on energy consumption. Once the products have been dried, they have a long shelf life. That is a big advantage if there is a surplus at harvest time and the produce can’t all be sold immediately.”

Food circles

Twenty-five partners from nine European countries are collaborating in the FOX project (see inset). The organisation leading the project is the DIL German Institute of Food Technology. WUR is responsible for the activities in the Dutch testing region.

The hubs can be used to process fresh fruit and vegetables using innovative techniques.

There are four such regions, termed ‘food circles’, that are testing the use of the hubs. The first food circle is the Lake Constance region in Germany, where a lot of fruit is grown. The fruit will be turned into juice in the hub. The second food circle involves Poland and the Czech Republic, with a hub that will be used to dry products such as fruit and various types of mushrooms. Food circle number three is in southern France and Spain. That hub will be used for experimenting with sustainable packaging for fruit and vegetables, using packaging that can be recycled or that extends the shelf life, for example. The fourth food circle, which Matser and her colleagues are involved in, is the Helmond area in the Netherlands. Matser: “Our circle aims to eliminate wastage in fruit and vegetables. That means that every part of the product is used, from top to bottom. We are therefore looking at processing the pulp and peel as well. These are normally side streams that are discarded, whereas they can also be turned into valuable ingredients or products.” When making carrot juice, for instance, the ends of the carrots are often thrown away, but they can in fact be used to make ingredients such as fibres and powders or products such as soups or sauces. To use the maximum value from the side streams, the Dutch food circle is designing a ‘Procestimator’ (see inset). This intelligent tool calculates how a side stream should be processed to maximise the nutritional value, produce high-quality food and prevent wastage.

Prevent decay

The side streams also have to be processed speedily after the production, explains Matser. “Those plant-based side streams decay very quickly. They are highly susceptible to the growth of yeasts and moulds. We are investigating how this can be prevented.”

The box is a mobile hub that can be installed on the premises of growers and cooperative associations, thus enabling them to process their products efficiently and sustainably. Photo: FOX

Decay can be prevented using mild pre-processing. These technologies ensure that the flavour, colour, texture and aroma of the products are retained and the shelf life extended. In Helmond too, electric pulses are applied to the side streams as PEF destroys the bacteria and speeds up the release of moisture from the cells. Mild heating techniques are also being investigated for treating the side streams so that they keep for longer and can be used more easily in food products.

Public-private partnerships

Each food circle is a collaboration between scientific institutes and other parties. In the Netherlands, those other parties are the vegetable processing company Van Rijsingen, Food Tech Brainport (a network of high-tech manufacturers, food processing companies and research and educational institutions) and the caterer Hutten. The catering company is a familiar face as the owner Bob Hutten set up the food waste processing factory Verspillingsfabriek (The Waste Factory, ed.) in Veghel together with Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. What Matser likes about the project is the European cooperation and the new knowledge it is developing. “For example, knowledge about how you can use mild food processing techniques on a small scale in practice and what the bottlenecks are. In the Helmond circle, we are taking a very pragmatic look at what works and what doesn’t. The companies we are collaborating with focus primarily on the application aspects. We hope that our Procestimator will be useful for a lot of companies, both in the Netherlands and Europe as a whole.” She believes that collaboration with European partners offers real added value. “Each country and each partner has its specialist areas. Aarhus University in Denmark is in charge of the consumer research part of the project, KU Leuven University is studying sustainability, and Warsaw has a mobile drying unit for experimenting with various drying methods. Thanks to this project, WUR has access to this knowledge too. We have a very good working relationship with all the partners.”

You want to prevent wastage, but how much does it cost in energy to process waste streams?

Remains of crops such as carrots are often thrown out, yet they could be used alternatively to produce ingredients or products. Photo: Shutterstock

WUR has a great deal of experience with turning side streams into something of value, including through its involvement in the Verspillingsfabriek. Matser: “What can you extract from that side stream, and how do you tackle it? What could you do with it? Is it commercially viable? That is knowledge other countries can benefit from too.”

Tangible results

No tangible results have been delivered as yet because the FOX project is still in the development phase. “We’ve been going for two years now and the project duration is four and a half years. On the one hand we’re looking at the technology and on the other at how you can organise it. What would be a possible business model? Who should pay for what? What do consumers think of it all?” So there is still plenty of research to be done, according to Matser. “For example as regards to sustainability. You want to avoid having to discard fruit and vegetables but what does the processing cost in terms of energy and water? And how do you store the products afterwards? After all, keeping things cool in a fridge for a long time takes energy too. We also compare the mobile hub option against the centrally located factory. You may need more transport for the central factory but production can also be more efficient there. What is more, the mobile hub brings technology to the region and makes small-scale processing possible. We are exploring all these aspects in the project.”

Procestimator

The Procestimator is a software tool that takes the composition, volume, availability, structure (powder, liquid and so on) and microbial and enzymatic stability of side streams and works out the processing required to give the desired end product. WUR researcher Martijntje Vollebregt, who works at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research: “You enter the side stream you have, say tomatoes, and what you want to turn it into. The end product could be anything from a food product such as soup to ingredients such as a pigment or thickener. The Procestimator tells you what processing steps are required – for example grinding, freezing or heating – and what that will cost. The tool also shows you which nutrients are retained.” The application is aimed at preventing food waste, but not at all costs. Vollebregt: “If a manufacturer has side streams collected for fermentation, that costs the company money but the fermentation results in biogas. You have to compare that benefit with the energy that it takes to turn the side stream into a useful end product in order to calculate the carbon footprint of the end product. The tool can do this too.”

European research context

Food Processing in a Box (FOX) addresses the following European policy challenge: Food safety and sustainable food processing Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Wageningen Food & Biobased Research Countries involved in Europe: Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia and Spain

Duration: 2019 – 2023

Share this article