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Oats, Soybeans, or Nuts – Interview about Industrial Production of Plant-based Milk Alternatives

As a separation technology specialist, we focus on combining efficient separation with effective dewatering of the fibers in order to achieve a high yield of the plant milk.
Andreas Metzenauer Head of Beverages and Dairy at Flottweg

More and more consumers are turning to plant-based milk alternatives instead of cow’s milk. As such, the market has seen constant development in recent years. In this interview, Andreas Metzenauer, Head of Beverages and Dairy at Flottweg, provides some interesting facts about how plant-based milk alternatives are produced and how industrial centrifuges are used for this.

Everyone is talking about plant-based milk alternatives – trend or permanent development?

In my opinion, it is a permanent development for several reasons. On one hand, people are more health conscious and try to eat as consciously, and with as much variety, as possible. On the other hand, many people are also trying to refine their sustainability approach. Here, the focus is primarily on CO2 balance, since most plant-based milk alternatives are better in this regard in comparison with cow’s milk. The issue of animal welfare is also frequently discussed, with many people seeing plant-based alternatives as a welcome alternative. In addition, a broad portion population has come to accept the look, smell, and taste of these products. At this point, it is not just vegans or vegetarians buying plant-based milk alternatives, so-called flexitarians are also making the switch. Simply because these milk alternatives taste good and have improved significantly in recent years. That’s also why I believe that the market will see many product innovations and ever better products in this area in the coming years.

What are plant-based milk alternatives?

A plant-based milk alternative is a vegan, water-based extract made from various plant-based raw materials without the addition of animal milk products. Additional vitamins, minerals, oils, and flavorings are added, depending on the recipe, to create a complete dairy substitute.

Which raw materials are particularly well-suited for producing vegan milk alternatives?

Ultimately, all types of cereals can be used for this, e.g., spelt, oats or rice. However, pseudocereals, like amaranth or quinoa, as well as various legumes like soybeans, peas, or field beans, are also popular raw materials. In recent years, there has also been more focus on oilseeds (such as hemp, sunflower seeds) and nuts. Ultimately, the raw material chosen will allow many ingredients to be extracted. The goal is to create a plant-based milk that has nearly the same ingredients and taste as cow’s milk. Proteins play the biggest role here, but carbohydrates and fiber are also important.

How are they made?

The raw materials are mixed with a certain amount of water and then ground wet. The proteins and ingredients are extracted according to a specific combination of temperature and time. If necessary, starch is converted into sugar by an enzymatic reaction. Next, industrial centrifuges separate the plant milk from the extracted plant fibers. Depending on the recipe, the plant milk is homogenized with edible oil, mixed with various ingredients, heated, and finally bottled.

Why are centrifuges needed to produce plant-based milk alternatives?

Centrifuges are the most efficient machines available for separating extract from mash. The high G-forces of the centrifuge result in maximum clarification, a large liquid yield thanks to efficient dewatering, and a consistently high throughput. Modern machines are built according to the latest hygiene standards and can be easily incorporated into fully automatic processing lines with CIP cleaning.

What should I keep in mind when choosing the right centrifuge manufacturer?

Reliable and efficient machine performance, ease of use, low service costs, and efficient cleaning are critical for the customer’s process. The special features and characteristics of Flottweg centrifuges mean maximum availability and high flexibility for the customer. These features include the unique impeller system, the Simp Drive® gearbox, and an optimized hygienic design. The Flottweg InGo user interface was even awarded the German Design Award in 2018 for its intuitive controls.

Can I process different raw materials with the same machine?

Different raw materials can be processed on the same production line, depending on the desired product quality and machine design. The manufacturer must pay special attention to the allergen labels on its end products.

What are the challenges of producing plant-based milk alternatives? What should I pay special attention to?

Manufacturers must consider a variety of criteria and decisions that each entail different challenges. Which raw material do I choose? How finely do I grind the raw material to achieve the best possible yield? How do I design my extraction process? What other ingredients do I add afterwards? How do I heat a product? How do I want to sell my product? These are just a few of the questions to ask.

As a separation technology specialist, we focus on combining efficient separation with effective dewatering of the fibers in order to achieve a high yield of the plant milk. At the same time, the decanters must, of course, be sufficiently large and optimally designed to ensure the best possible separation results. Thanks to our many years of experience and numerous references, we have the necessary know-how and provide our customers with the best support possible.

Flottweg decanters are particularly well-suited for this process – how exactly can this be incorporated into production?

We offer our customers separation solutions that are flexible, tailor-made, and optimally designed. Of course, the solution will always depends on the project, process, and initial situation: Is this a new process line? Is this an existing plant? Or does an existing system need to be converted? Depending on the application, Flottweg offers system solutions as plug-and-play units or incorporates suitable individual machines into the respective process. Of course, we provide assistance from the start, with advice on choosing the right machine size, as well as on installation and planning, so that, by the end, the interfaces have been perfectly explained for the various trades who will work with them.

Flottweg’s Sedicanter® is also well-suited for this process – where is it used?

The Sedicanter® is particularly well-suited for the use of very finely ground raw materials that form a soft sediment. Decanters are often at their performance limits here because the fine solids can no longer be separated efficiently. The Sedicanter provides the decisive advantage with its higher G-values of up to 10,000 x g. This ensures optimal yields and clarification.

What does the future hold for plant-based milk alternatives?

In my opinion, there will be many product innovations in this area that will make it onto the market in coming years. I also believe that new products must clearly stand out from the competition if they are to be successful in the long term. Initially, the main challenges here are in research and product development. At the same time, it will become clear in coming years that people have really begun to rethink how they live. This will certainly happen in the future across different generations, with new plant-based diets increasingly becoming the norm.

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