Dr Wayne Morley

Top ten myths in food manufacturing: the first five

Wayne Morley (left), head of Food Innovation at Leatherhead Food Research in the UK, draws upon his experience of working with large brands and in factories, and takes a look at manufacturing, specifically exploring the common misapprehensions that surround it; the misconceptions and misunderstandings that can result in wasted time and effort in bringing new products to market.

Myth 1 – The lab can analyse the product for anything

Foods are analysed in a number of different ways, the most important of which are:

  • Physical attributes such as viscosity, texture and colour
  • Chemical composition, but not just nutritional information
  • Microbiological status to ensure safe and stable food
  • Consumer liking and acceptability

The chemical composition is perhaps the most difficult to characterise with any certainty. The nutritional information for back-of-pack labelling purposes may be determined routinely, but other chemical species can be more difficult. For example, when analysing a product to identify a chemical taint or a compound taint using GC-MS, it is useful to know which part of the spectrum to look in. This can be achieved by asking people, in the form of a trained sensory panel, to identify the type of taint that is present.

For the analysis of quality changes during shelf life, such as colour fading, and vitamin degradation, it is again important to determine which types of compounds, and therefore which analysis techniques, are likely to be most applicable.

So, the lab can analyse for most things, but they need some help, or at least some clues.

Myth 2 – If it’s in the specification then it’s bound to work

Specifications are the critical output of any technical exercise. In the development of new products there may well be some new ingredients that have been introduced, and some specific processing parameters for efficient manufacturing, in addition to the new product specifications themselves.

Only by comparing the product attributes to the agreed specification can the quality department determine whether the product should be released for sale or not. The specification should also indicate the corrective actions that should be taken if the product is not acceptable.

The specification does not tell the whole story, however. In the case of emulsifiers, the specification may include parameters such as the melting point, solubility, particle size, colour, and iodine value. But, none of these are indicators for the two key functionalities of emulsifiers, namely enhancing the ability to form an emulsion by reducing the interfacial tension, and then stabilising the emulsion once formed.

If you’re lucky, the specification may include interfacial tension, but this will be in a model system with few of the ‘real food’ parameters that apply to your product; also, the specification will say nothing about emulsion stabilisation.

In the case of finished products, the big unknown is the performance in use by the consumer. The product may well have been acceptable when it left the factory but the supply chain, storage conditions, and consumer behaviour will almost certainly have led to changes. It is worth considering the use of ‘consumer specifications’, with appropriate abuse tests, to try and take these into account.

Myth 3 – Quality assurance and quality control are the same thing

The quality of the foods that we supply is constantly being assessed, with judgements and actions resulting from these. This is not just in the quality control lab, but in the factory, the warehouse, the retailer, and in the home too. The factory operator making a small process parameter adjustment because the product does not feel right, the warehouse worker correcting the alignment of cases on the top layer of a pallet, and the supermarket shelf-stacker wiping a jar clean, are all examples of corrective actions from perceived quality defects.

It is clear then that it is not just the quality control staff that are responsible for the product quality, and thus the challenge is to assess the product quality as efficiently and as early as possible, such that the defects are eliminated before the product reaches these stages.

Quality assessments can be divided into quality assurance and quality control. Quality assurance is all about putting the necessary controls in place, and monitoring continuously during production, to ensure that the product quality will be acceptable without further testing. Supplier assurance and audit for the control of ingredients quality, and the monitoring of processing line pressures and temperatures, fall into this category. Even the small operator adjustments are included, even if this is not according to a specification or procedure.

Quality control is concerned with the testing of finished products, typically by trained quality control staff, according to set procedures and specifications, and according to an agreed sampling plan. Of course, any quality defects picked up at this stage may be too late and result in products being destroyed, if considered to be critical.

It is likely that an appropriate combination of quality assurance and quality control will be applicable in most cases. Even those factories with elaborate and comprehensive quality assurance procedures are likely to have some element of quality control testing as part of a due diligence programme.

Myth 4 – Ingredients only do what they’re called

The ingredients that we use in foods are categorised into types according to a key functionality and for labelling purposes. So monoglyceride, E471, is classed as an emulsifier, and clearly functions as an emulsifier in that it reduces the interfacial tension; gelatine clearly acts to thicken foods and form gels at the appropriate levels. Sugar, of course, adds bulk and texture to a product – the aspects of its functionality that are often the most challenging when using intense sweeteners in sugar reduction activities. Not that maintaining the clean, sweet taste of sugar is trivial in these circumstances.

Emulsifiers are an excellent example of an ingredient type that performs functions other than what their name suggests. Some examples of functionalities other than emulsion formation and stabilisation in different food categories are:

  • Margarines and spreads
  • Initiation of fat crystallisation
  • Ice cream and artificial whipping creams
  • Controlled destabilisation of ice cream or cream on whipping
  • Bakery products
  • Amylose complexing (crumb softening)
  • Aeration
  • Sugar confectionery
  • Fat dispersal

Finally, as in all aspects of formulation, the optimum product attributes are a result of specific combinations of ingredients. So, using emulsifiers as the example again, the appropriate stability of an oil-in-water emulsion can best be achieved by using a blend of a stabilising emulsifier such as milk protein, and a destabilising emulsifier such as monoglyceride.

Myth 5 – It was the night shift

You can blame the night shift for anything. The packaging doesn’t work; the night shift didn’t set the line up properly; a critical ingredient has run out, or it may be that the night shift used more than they should have done so stocks ran out. If it’s a permanent night shift, rather than a rotating shift pattern, then they’re never around to defend themselves and they’re never in attendance at production meetings during the day either.

The truth, however, is very different; production lines tend to run more efficiently at night, mainly because there are no managers around to interfere.

The production staff can operate the line efficiently based on their experience of doing so for 20 years or more; they are also adept at solving problems on the run, so line stoppages are shorter and with less wastage. It is, therefore, in everyone’s best interest to support the night shift, and indeed all operators, as they have the most difficult and important job in any food company. Without the products they manufacture, there is no marketing activity, health claims, or sales margin – and perhaps there was something wrong with the packaging after all!

Source: Leatherhead Food RA

Click here for Part 2 of ‘Ten myths in food manufacturing’: Top ten myths in food manufacturing: the second five