The market for plant-based ingredients and dairy alternatives is growing at a fast pace. But little is known about the potential microbial contamination risks of plant-based proteins, compared to more familiar dairy products.

Novel plant ingredients may contain unknown types and levels of microbes. However, these ingredients often require milder processing. For example, high heat treatments may severely impact the ingredient’s functional or nutritional performance. But the milder processing conditions may not sufficiently inactivate the microbes. If undesirable microbes are able to survive and grow in your product, they could cause spoilage or worse – a health risk.

At the same time, there is growing consumer demand for healthier, more natural, Clean Label products with reduced levels of salt, sugar, preservatives and other additives. This increases the challenge of designing and producing safe, stable products using these plant-based ingredients.

Microbial contamination challenges

Our research into microbial contamination in plant-based ingredients  has revealed several microbiological health and stability challenges for food manufacturers. We found that:

  • Most of the plant-based protein ingredients contain significant levels of microbial contaminants, including the spore forming bacteria Bacillus cereus, B. subtilis, B. amyloliquefaciens, B. licheniformis and Geobacillus stearothermophilus.
  • Some of these produce heat-stable toxins and/or heat-resistant spores that can survive even high heat treatments.
  • They can also contain low concentrations of heat-resistant moulds.

To tackle these microbial risks, you have to consider quality and safety throughout the entire food chain: ingredients, formulation and process, finished product, and distribution chain conditions.

Multidisciplinary approach to optimal product and process design

NIZO’s multidisciplinary approach aims to build quality and safety into your products from source to consumer experience. An initial in silico risk assessment with predictive modelling looks at the processing conditions, the intrinsic properties of the product, and the intended storage and consumption conditions. We can use this assessment to identify microbes of concern, and reveal whether additional preventive measures, (bio)preservatives or processes are needed.

We then assess different strategies for the formulation and processing of your product and application. For example, can we use Clean Label antimicrobials or is fermentation a better choice for (bio)preservation? How will each impact the microbes – and the product itself?

Multiple concept formulations and processes can be screened quickly and cost-effectively in our high throughput screening platform, by adding different microbes of concern to the application. Finally, we can perform trial production in our food-grade pilot plant and validate your product’s safety and stability. Our multidisciplinary team supports you with expert interpretations of outcomes.

Based on the results at the different stages, we can help you make informed decisions, to optimise your processing and product development strategies, and increase your product’s shelf life, safety and quality – by design!

Any questions?

Martin Ham is happy to answer all your questions.

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