German Institute of Food Technologies: “We Are Able to Cover Every Area in the Field of Food Technology”

Dr. Volker Heinz, head of the German Institute of Food Technologies (DIL)
© Jörg Sarbach

Before a product can enter the market there is a long waiting period – especially with foods which require the usage of processing techniques like some vegan products. This period is where the German Institute of Food Technologies operates. Under the management of Dr.-Ing. Volker Heinz a team of experts throughout several laboratories help innovative products to come to life. Reason enough for us to have an interview with him about the interesting field of vegan food research and technology.

How long has the DIL already been working on the development of plant-based vegan products?
The development first began at the DIL some 30 years ago. At the DIL, the research concept is pivotal: in respect of research, the DIL takes a procedural and material science related approach. Rather than concentrating on the differences between plant and animal products, our focus is on the structure and functionality of the raw material in question.

How are you able to support companies in the development of plant-based products?
The DIL applies a range of different approaches to support companies in their development of plant- based products. The production process itself offers a great many opportunities for support and optimisation. Another important area is sensor technology. Of course, aside from actual production, food safety and organoleptic properties play a very important role. And by having a number of accredited laboratories, the DIL is very well set up in these areas.

A further entry point is the manufacturing process, where the entire chain from the procurement of raw materials to the logistics of the finished product must be considered. Apart from the safety aspects, optimisation of the process, the creation of an attractive structure and functionality of the final product and, of course, sustainability are also important. The DIL is one of the few research establishments that are able to carry out life-cycle analyses on products, processes and infrastructures for the foodstuffs industry in accordance with standardised procedures.

What kinds of specialists do you have working on these developments in-house?
We have expert teams made up of food technicians, engineers, chemists, biologists, technologists, quality management experts, ecotrophologists, data scientists and many other professionals. Thanks to that very broad deployment, we are able to cover every area in the field of food technology.

Where exactly in the food technology field do your customers come from?
Ultimately, from the whole spectrum of food producing companies, from representatives of the consumer and also from companies manufacturing meat products. But we also have representatives of companies supplying engineering plans and machinery, as well as from those producing ingredients.

What sort of customers come to you – are they generally corporations or are there also start-ups?
Globally-positioned enterprises actually play a significant role in our cooperative ventures. But our customer base also includes small- and medium-sized businesses based in the region, as well as a range of start-ups. With these, we see it as our duty to make our competence and know-how available not only to regional companies, but also to the many start-ups in the foodstuffs sector.

Why is “clean meat” less sustainable than plant-based meat products?
With “clean meat”, cell growth depends – among others – on carbon and nitrogen sources. These are derived from agricultural production and are therefore primarily of floral origin. This means that the plant material has to undergo an additional conversion in order to produce “clean meat”. It is that conversion which accounts for the energy loss. It is therefore more practical, for example, to structure the plant material directly by extrusion and then process it into a texture which resembles meat. The very significant amounts of energy currently required make “clean meat” production much less energy efficient, even when compared to conventional meat production.

Keyword sustainability: has this topic created more attention among your plant-based product customers in the recent past?
Recent years have borne witness to an increasing interest in the subject of sustainability. Next to sustainability, however, food safety, food quality and food authentication have become the major issues relating to the marketing of food. We are currently working on a number of projects in the area of hybrids and plant-based products with our partners.

Where do you see room for improvement in the field of plant-based meat production?
The attractiveness of the product in terms of structure and functionality is generally the main limiting factor in plant-based meat products. Processing technology has still not enabled the industry to transform the properties of the raw material into the textures and taste properties demanded by consumers. But research and development in this field is by no means over. There are a host of promising alternative solutions still barely known to the food industry. Wet extrusion can, for example, be an efficient tool for converting agriculture-based raw material into edible foodstuffs. But naturally, the image and marketing strategies devised for plant-based meat products are also playing an important role and are offering opportunities for improvement. In this respect, even the concept of plant-based meat products already poses a problem.

On which processes are you actually working in the area of plant-based products?
We are currently working primarily in the area of extrusion. But we are also working on plant-based products in the areas of hydrostatic high-pressure technology, pulsed electric fields and high-pressure homogenisation. In the future, we will be looking at additive production in the form of 3D printing.

In Germany, is there enough happening in order for us to keep pace with the global competition regarding plant-based products?
On the international stage, Germany is currently bringing the greatest number of new vegan products onto the market. Unfortunately, in terms of turnover, these products only have a niche existence. None of the vegan products currently available on the market has established itself as a real alternative to conventional products based on raw materials derived from animals so far. Changes in global competitiveness also need time to take effect and can only be accelerated through an increase in research and development activity. At least we are seeing an increase in consumer perception in this area, even if that increase is a moderate one.

What needs to be done for Germany to become a leading producer of plant-based products?
The trend towards decentralisation and regionalisation of food production is generally acknowledged. And this also offers opportunities for products made from plant-based raw materials: plant-based raw materials, like carbohydrate- and protein-rich dried concentrates are perfectly suited to implement of the concept of decentralisation. They shift final production much closer to the consumer and give it the flexibility to respond to customer preferences. Developments in the composition and structure of foodstuffs brought about by additive production is without doubt a logical consequence, but will require a mixture of traditional large-scale automated production and additive manufacture in the form of 3D printing.