With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to disrupt supply chains and mounting pressure from consumers to deliver safe and sustainably packaged products, we are seeing a surge of interest from beverage processors in aseptic bottle filling solutions. In part, this is due the inherent benefits of shelf-stable products, including lower energy costs for retailers, lower shipping costs for manufacturers and prolonged food safety. Milk and juice processors are becoming increasingly aware of these advantages, so I wanted to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about aseptic bottling solutions.
But before I dive into the Q&A, I believe it’s important to define the aseptic bottling process. I like to describe this process as filling a sterile product into a sterile bottle, closed by a sterile cap (or cover), all within a sterile processing environment. This process can lead to better preservation and less food waste, especially in areas where refrigeration isn’t widely available.
1. What is the process for aseptic beverage filling?
Creating an aseptic product and eliminating risk of contamination throughout the entire bottling process typically requires a fully integrated approach with several applications working in harmony — including fillers, cappers and other hygienic equipment.
To put this into perspective for customers, I compare the aseptic filing process to a hurdle race. Each machine or application comes with its own hurdles that you must put in place and monitor to ensure food safety for the end user. These hurdles might be additional light or oxygen barriers for the product. They might be additional decontamination enclosures for the bottling or capping applications. Whatever the case may be, these hurdles are necessary to ensure that your final product will be good to consume over the committed shelf-life duration.
2. What is UHT sterilization?
To make liquid products aseptic, beverage processors use a technique known as ultra-high-temperature (UHT) sterilization. This involves flash heating the liquid to a high very temperature. Then the beverage is allowed to cool before being filled into a bottle.
3. What are the advantages of aseptically bottled milk?
To be considered aseptic (or shelf-stable), milk must undergo UHT pasteurization, requiring the product to be heated to 138–150 degrees Celsius (280–302 degrees Fahrenheit) for one or two seconds. This kills harmful bacteria before the product is filled into a milk jug or bottle. Product stability combined with packaging reclosability provide a perfect fit for consumers and a great marketability for producers.
4. What are the advantages of aseptically bottled juice?
Processors of fruit juice and other high-acid beverages can leverage many of the same benefits with aseptic bottling, including longer shelf lives, fewer preservatives and less food waste. However, because juices include valuable compounds such as vitamins, the process of thermally sterilizing these products is a bit more complicated, as a too long exposure to heat may affect product taste or color. Luckily, aseptic cold filling and packaging solutions have come a long way over the years, and these challenges are becoming easier to overcome.
5. What are the advantages of fully integrated aseptic bottling lines?
As I mentioned before, the aseptic bottle filling process requires multiple machines (fillers, cappers, etc.) to work in harmony. For this reason, it can be beneficial to select an equipment partner that can deliver fully integrated packaging line solutions. Doing so will ensure seamless project management, simplified communication and a cohesive controls environment.
6. When are aseptic conditions necessary for bottled products?
Often beverage processors already have an opinion on whether aseptic filling technology is necessary or advantageous for their product when they meet with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). These customers, who are looking to validate their own opinions, typically fall into two camps:
- They want to justify the investment in aseptic technology, so they’re looking to us — the OEM — to help them justify the expense.
- They want to avoid it because they expect aseptic technology to have higher operational costs and be a more difficult technology to integrate and monitor.
Because each product comes with a unique set of parameters (brand owner standards, market competition, type of distribution, environmental conditions of end user, etc.), there is no “one size fits all” solution. For this reason, OEMs can help customers plot these parameters across a matrix and provide them with resources that help them visualize each of their considerations and how they will impact the solution that they need.