Premixes Mix it Up
At the root of any sound process is the formulation; with rare exceptions, getting things precise at this fundamental stage is the most critical step
With ingredients that make up the large proportion of a formulation, process is relatively simple. For items like sugar, starch, fat, and protein, it is often possible to batch these components by simply pouring the required number of standardized packages of the bulk ingredient into the production vessel. There even can be a little “wiggle room.”
For example, in making a batch apple pie filling, a recipe that calls for 50lbs of apples and 100g of ground cinnamon is unlikely to be negatively impacted by the addition or absence of a single apple or a teaspoon of cinnamon.
However, when it comes to small-quantity ingredients, such as high-intensity sweeteners, colors, hydrocolloids for controlling texture, and flavorants, the need for precision increases exponentially.
While it certainly is possible to simply combine individual ingredients in separate, premeasured quantities, each such addition is also an opportunity for error. Especially in dry mixes, the exact dosage, and its uniform and complete distribution into the batch, is critical to the performance of the finished product.
A common example is the inclusion of micronutrients. When it comes to ingredients such as vitamins, minerals, botanicals, and other nutraceutical ingredients—anything across a spectrum from butter with a standard of identity that requires a certain level of vitamin A, to a sports drink with an advertised list of vitamin and mineral nutrients—getting the final dose right becomes a more demanding task.
Micronutrient fortification represents a special challenge in the food industry, as well as the dietary supplement industry. With consumers paying more attention to labels, food scientists are challenged to formulate in ways that reduce the content of “artificial” ingredients; rely more heavily on organic and natural ingredients; and add in the latest, hottest additive, herbal ingredient, vitamin, or mineral to enhance the perceived nutritional value. This also increases the marketability of the finished product.
Meanwhile, marketers are under the impetus to highlight the healthful benefits of their products. And the picture becomes more complicated as regulatory issues make their demands. Standards of identity, purity, and various certifications and verifications demand that what is declared to be in a product, and in the amounts claimed, is exactly what is in the final product.
In using micronutrients like vitamins and minerals, the concentrations necessary to obtain the desired label claims are general, small in relation to the overall ingredient content of the finished product. Not only must the manufacturer ensure the correct amounts are added, and that these micro-ingredients are dispersed evenly throughout the formulation.
Take the example of a low-carb powdered sports drink fortified with protein, vitamins, and minerals: The bulk of the formulation is relatively easy to assemble, as it consists mainly of the protein source. On the other hand, the high-intensity sweetener will be a relatively small but manageable part of the formulation and may be blended in-house with the protein in a relatively straightforward manner.
The next challenge comes with the flavors, colors, and, especially, the vitamins and minerals. It is common for the dosage of a flavor or color (in their commercial forms) to be well under 1% of the total weight of the product mix. Dry-blending of components at larger percentages is relatively straightforward and time-efficient. At low concentrations, longer mixing times are necessary to ensure complete and uniform distribution of the small-volume component(s).
The use of premixes can provide manufacturers with multiple distinct advantages. Flavors and colors may be pre-blended with compatible substrates (such as starch or maltodextrin) that dilute the strength of the ingredient in the pre-blend, and therefore require a higher dosage in the final product. The higher dosage allows the low-concentration component to disperse completely and uniformly in less time.
Vitamins and minerals are generally formulated in even lower levels much lower than 1%. This usually guarantees the purified forms cannot be added directly to a powdered drink mix, because they cannot be effectively and uniformly dispersed in the finished product. In these cases, it is necessary to work with highly diluted forms of the purified components.
To further complicate the situation where vitamins and minerals are concerned, the forms of these components can present certain hurdles. For example, one of the most common commercially available forms of vitamin B12 is crystalline, and the crystals are small and needle-shaped. This particle morphology means that this form of B12, if added in tiny quantities to a powdered drink mix, will not disperse uniformly. The crystals become essentially “hot spots” of B12 concentration that occur in one portion of the formulation but not in others.
An amorphous powder form of B12 may provide a small amount of relief from the hot spot worry, but even this form is likely to be too concentrated for many formulations. In these cases, a premix of the vitamin on a compatible substrate can be used to dilute the ingredient and, ultimately, allow uniform dispersion into the finished formulation.
Preblend and Process
The formulator’s job is frequently complicated by requests to match the label declaration on a target product. In this case the formulation must be reverse-engineered to match the existing label and to deliver the targeted nutritional profile and percentage of RDA. There are other important considerations, as well.
As an example, some vitamins are more susceptible to degradation by oxidation processes. The formulator must account for the effects processing time and shelflife have on the level of the critical nutrient. In many formulations, this will involve a practice known as “over-dosing.” This is the deliberate application of an extra amount of the given nutrient to account for degradation processes. The goal is to have the end-product still result in a concentration sufficient to meet the label declaration requirements at the end of the product’s shelflife.
This is where a knowledgeable preblend formulator can bring her or his experience and expertise to bear in solving problems. Strict, standardized methods are developed to ensure quality and consistency. An intimate knowledge of processing technologies, ingredient interactions and sensitivities, normal shelflife, and protection strategies all come into play.
After the proper and desired ingredients are determined by the product developer and presented to the ingredient technologist, ingredient compatibilities are assessed. The correct processing technology is selected, and product shelflife requirements, as well as packaging and all other factors in the plant-to-shelf chain, are taken into account.
Analytical validation of label claims and nutritional panel data are other critical components of the successful use of micronutrients. Where vitamins and minerals are concerned, analysis and quantification are often relatively complex tasks.
As previously noted, these components are present in very low concentration—the methodologies required for quantification are generally more advanced than typically are used in many manufacturing operations. They often involve technologies such as HPLC and AA spectrophotometry.
The capital expense of the analytical equipment for premix content validation is a substantial consideration. Further, the techniques utilized to generate data frequently require additional effort in sample preparation, equipment maintenance, method development and validation, and standardization. Samples from production lots must go through preparation protocols that often are designed or modified for the specific food system to be analyzed.
Sample preparation procedures can include separation of sample components that either interfere with proper operation of the equipment or prevent accurate quantification of the target component. Moreover, if the procedure varies substantially from a known standard procedure, it is necessary to validate the modified procedure to ensure it is accurately detecting and quantifying the target component.
The use of such techniques is what allows a vitamin premix supplier to consistently deliver the specified quantities of micronutrients, offering a considerable advantage to the processor of the final product line. The use of a professionally made premix provides the manufacturer with reassurance that the vitamin and mineral content (or any other micronutrient system) of finished goods meets expectations and label requirements.
Vitamins and some minerals are often the most expensive ingredient on a per-pound basis in a fortified food product. Since their concentration is low, the overall impact on the cost of a formulation is moderated.
However, if blending micronutrients in-house, the impact on a manufacturer’s inventory can be substantial. If the manufacturer is required to buy individual vitamin and mineral components in standard-sized packages, the cost quickly mounts. Since the usage rate is generally quite low, ingredients can remain in inventory for an extended amount of time until fully utilized, tying up capital.
In addition, the manufacturer must have in place experts who understand the behaviors of the individual ingredients. Line staff must be trained to properly handle and pre-disperse the ingredients, as well as to follow through on necessary quality-control checks. This is a time-consuming operation, requiring considerable infrastructure and, thus, cost.
Partnering with a reputable manufacturer of premixes relieves these pressures on the food manufacturer, allowing them to concentrate on production of finished goods—rather than on multiple and complicated intermediate steps.
“Preblends have been a routine part of the approach to formulating food products for multiple reasons,” acknowledges Tom Henkemeyer, a Chicago food industry consultant with 34 years of product development experience. “Sometimes, the challenge is a matter of getting good dispersion of a low-concentration ingredient. In some cases, certain ingredients will not disperse properly, or they take too long to disperse, under low-shear conditions. Colors and flavors come to mind in certain cases, and a preblend can help in these circumstances. The right dilution of the color or flavor reduces the occurrence of ingredient hot spots in the final product.”
Vitamin suppliers are the best assets for a manufacturer, when it comes to determining how to incorporate ingredient combinations into finished formulations, according to Henkemeyer. “Not only do they understand the basic performance criteria of the individual ingredients, they also understand how they are best combined and processes to achieve the target results.”
Henkemeyer uses fortified fruit snacks as an example of preblend advantages. “To fortify a fruit snack with specific nutraceutical ingredients, it’s important to understand that processing conditions, such as the amount of heat applied and the force of mixing, can influence outcomes.
Because of the sensitivity of some key ingredients it might be necessary to apply a 10-20% overage, so that the end-result is within the target specification.”
Henkemeyer adds that, as products become more complex and require more complex processing conditions, there is a greater effect on the survivability of some key ingredients. “It’s best to work with someone who understands these limitations and can provide advice on how to minimize losses,” he concludes.
Mike Weber, manager of dough quality at Dominos, concurs, with a different channel in mind: baked products. “Premixes have been an integral part of the manufacturing processes everywhere I have worked,” he admits. “The product development teams I work with will routinely prescribe premixes as a solution to blending and dispersion issues that are encountered in our manufacturing processes. They ease the batching process by reducing complexity, saving time on the production floor, and generally yielding more reproducible results, batch-to-batch.”
Weber points to other advantages of using premix suppliers. “In cases where we are fortifying with micronutrients or specialty ingredients, we might add the individual ingredients ourselves, if the operation is simple enough. But when we run into more complex situations, we often will work directly with our suppliers to design preblends that simplify our manufacturing processes, reduce our costs of inventory, and give us the uniform results we require.”
Adds Weber, “The right supplier can provide a reliable course of action that provides us with added reassurance that the micronutrient content of the finished product is within our internal specifications.”
Sweeteners are a common category for both wet and dry preblends,
especially since the huge upsurge in use of naturally derived high-intensity zero-calorie sweeteners. Stevia and monk fruit have been the foremost of these, at around 200-300 times the sweetness of sucrose.
A setback for these sweeteners always has been that, with powerful sweetening came powerful aftertaste. The natural sweeteners proved to be far less unpleasant than their artificial counterparts, but they still became known for slight secondary flavor notes; in stevia sweeteners, they’re often described as “licorice-like.”
Another issue with stevia and monk fruit is their inability to provide the same bulking as sucrose and other full-calorie sweeteners. Ingredient technologists have expended great effort and resources developing blends of these sweeteners with such bulkers as erithrytol or polydextrose, or other low-calorie polyols and carbohydrates.
Precision-blending has allowed for multiple and complicated blends of sweeteners, such as stevia and monk fruit. Monk fruit is “tuned” to a level that at once enhances overall flavor; couples with stevia for sweetness intensity; and simultaneously masks the licorice aftertaste of stevia. Sweetener makers are now expert at manipulating the ingredient tools in their arsenal to suit any manufacturer’s unique needs.
Stevia also has been effectively blended with trending nutritive sweeteners, such as coconut sugar. By enhancing the sweetness of the vitamin- and mineral-rich aspects of this sugar, product makers—especially of confectionary and bakery items—can take better advantage of the tropical ingredient’s own complex flavor profile, while maintaining a clean label designation and positioning under its health halo, marketing-wise.
Beverages have been able to benefit in advances in wet blends of liquid sweeteners. Extracts, natural flavors and plant-based thickeners have been combined to make stevia-centered substitutes for corn syrup.
These blends mimic the sweetness, flavor, and mouthfeel of the common caloric corn sugar. At less than a tenth the calories, and with the added benefit of providing significant levels of dietary fiber, such blends have raised the bar for premix
“With our complex mix of products, we’re also ultimately in the business of being flexible and nimble,” says Matt Martens, vice president of procurement and technical for Bevolution Group, a maker of shelf-stable and frozen beverage products, and cocktail mixes. “We always are looking for ways to simplify our manufacturing and product development processes.”
The newly formed beverage maker started at full tilt, with plants in Chicago, Florida, and New York. “When developing new products, we often work hand-in-hand with key suppliers who assist us in formulating premixes of flavors, colors, vitamins and/or minerals,” says Martens. “These blends are designed to meet our specific organoleptic product performance goals and supply
target RDA values.”
Martens acknowledges that the expertise of Bevolution Group’s suppliers can “help shorten the development cycle, reduce inventory costs, and simplify manufacturing operations.” He further adds, “If we specify a target mix of vitamins for a specific type of beverage formulation, our suppliers can recommend the composition of the preblend and also provide guidance on processing conditions that will help with successful incorporation of the ingredients.”