Thormahlen told DairyReporter that Arla’s consumers look to the company as one that provides healthy nutritious and natural products to them.
“When we discuss natural, then our consumers ask more and more for minimally-processed. They would like to consume products as nature intended, as if they came directly to them from the farm,” he said.
Because of that, he said, the company tries to look at the safety requirements needed to process the milk minimally, so that it comes closest to what the farmer produces on the farm.
“We're experimenting with non-homogenized milk. It used to be the golden standard that your milk was homogenized and looks snow white.
“These days, consumers say ‘that's not really what we want, we would like to see milk as we see it on the farm, so if it does cream, then that is a sign of product integrity and naturality,’ and as a result we want to give consumers milk that is as close to farmers' milk as possible.”
Importance of shelf life
Arla is, however, also working on other innovation, including increasing shelf life.
“Shelf life is one of our attention points,” Thormahlen said.
“The starting point is when you fill the product in the final container, to understand what is happening once the product leaves your production site; how can you make sure that the product quality is maintained over the period which you want to sell to your consumer.”
He said that this involves real-time shelf-life testing, but the trend in the industry is towards accelerated shelf life testing and model systems that allow shelf life prediction.
“If you have to do it in real-time that slows down your process, you would rather like to have predictable models and tools that can guide you and make predictions to shelf life,” Thormahlen noted.
“So part of our work here is to create the necessary models and parameters for shelf life prediction.
“You try to understand what is happening to the product over time, both in terms of microbiology and also in terms of chemistry and functionality, to understand the dynamics of coalescence for instance, of different compartments in the product.
“Are they kept in an emulsified state? Is there coalescence, is there phase separation going on, migration? You want to know about oxidation, degradation of molecules due to enzymatic activity in the product, so it's a very complex model.”
Another research area related to shelf life is supercooling for products not at ambient temperature but in the cool chain.
“You have two options,” Thormahlen explained.
“You can either cool, or you can deep freeze your products. When you cool, you will extend your shelf life, but not unlimited; when you deep-freeze you can extend your shelf life considerably, at the expense of product quality, because when you deep freeze you have ice crystal formation in your product, and that can be detrimental to structure and product quality.”
He said that one way of extending shelf life beyond cooling while avoiding the deep freeze damage is to seek out supercooling windows, where measurements are taken for every product to discover an optimum cooling temperature that is just above the formation temperature of ice crystals.
“When you cool your products just above the ice crystal formation temperature, then you will gain considerable shelf life for your products without destroying structure and value,” he said.
Thormahlen said that Arla has co-financed a chair at the University of Copenhagen, to study the field of dairy processing, with the goal being to research and update on new dairy processing methodologies, electric fields, UV light, sound or pressure.
“They are described in the literature or they are investigated by research teams around the world, and we are in the process of bringing those methods to Copenhagen in an applied research mode to look at the advantages and possible disadvantages of these different methods to see if we as a company can gain benefits from these new developments,” he explained.
Before making a decision to bring new technology into Arla facilities, Thormahlen said validation of the methods need to take place to ensure they are in compliance with safety regulations in Europe and internationally.
Thormahlen mentioned a company in Australia that uses pressure rather than pasteurization for milk, a technology that local authorities allowed.
“We could not introduce such a product into the European market even if we wanted tomorrow, because we need to then look at the validity of this method and get it validated and endorsed by the European food safety authorities,” Thormahlen observed.
“So the way we would work in Arla is to observe these trends, and then see in our own labs, or in collaboration with Copenhagen University - is the method valuable, what is the product quality? And then see if that method passes European regulations, and if not, what kind of effort is needed to get it accredited by the European food safety authorities.”
Thormahlen said that in such circumstances, when they do want to introduce something for consumers, Arla would engage with the authorities to provide the necessary data for them to endorse and approve the new methodologies.
“But it is a long process,” he admitted.