Modern food processing equipment stands for a wide range of machines, systems, and components used to handle, cook, prepare, store, and package processed foods. Even if this equipment is mainly used to increase the palatability and digestibility of the food, as well as extend its shelf life, some types of food processing equipment are also used to perform other auxiliary functions. Among these, we can include the preparation, packaging, and handling of processed foods from one side of the food processing facility to another.

In 2019, the global food processing and handling equipment market was valued at around $137.2 billion. With a projected CAGR of 6.2%, the market is expected to reach $196.6 billion by 2025. The numerous processing technology advancements made in the food processing industry, as well as the continuous growth in demand, are expected to drive the industry’s growth even further over the coming years. The expansion of food manufacturing in emerging economies will also support the growth of the equipment market.

When it comes to the food processing production cycle, the equipment used can be broken down into several stages. These are characterized by specific functions during which individual unit operations will be performed. For instance, during the preparation stage, the main function is to prepare the food for further processing. Among the unit operations performed during this stage include washing and separating.

There are also secondary functions during the food preparation process that support the food production cycle’s primary function. These can include system control operations that maintain the required processing standards or material handling systems that convey food materials between the various process stations.

That said, some of the most common functions by which the equipment used in food processing can be grouped will include Preparation, Mechanical Processing, Heat Processing, Preservation, Packaging, and Material handling.

Preparation Equipment

There are the initial preparatory operations within the food processing production cycle that focus on preparing raw food materials for future processes. In general, the food processing techniques used during this stage include the separation of desirable material from the low quality or undesirable material. While doing so, manufacturers are in a better position to produce uniform and high-quality food, and remove any foreign matter, contaminants, or pathogenic microorganisms that may degrade or damage the food or equipment or result in food-borne illnesses. We can include cleaning, sorting, grading, and peeling, among the processing techniques used during the raw material preparation stage.

  • Cleaning – This process removes foreign matter and contaminants from the raw material’s surface via either wet and/or dry cleaning. The wet cleaning process includes food processing technologies such as floatation tanks, spray washers, sterilizers, and ultrasonic cleaners. The dry process includes air classifiers, magnetic, and screen separators.
  • Sorting and Grading – It assesses several characteristics of the food items, such as damage, color, aroma, flavor, etc., and determine the overall quality. Processing technology used includes tungsten lights (candling) and various other image processors.
  • Peeling – This process removes any inedible or undesirable material, increasing the quality and appearance of the final product. Pressure vessels for flash steam peeling, stationary or rotating blades for knife peeling, abrasive rollers for abrasion peeling or furnaces, and conveyors for flame peeling are some of the food processing technologies used.

Mechanical Processing Equipment

Mechanical food processing techniques reduce, enlarge, homogenize, or generally change the food matter’s physical form. This process will increase the effectiveness of future processes, improve the quality and edibility, and allow for a greater range of food products to be made.

  • Size Reduction – This reduces the average particle size of solid food matter through shearing, compression, or impact force processes. Grinding, pressure, or attrition mills, roll crushers, band saws, or meat grinders are some of the processing technology used.
  • Size Enlargement – Will increase the average size of the food items through processes like extrusion or agglomeration. Single or twin-screw extruders, refrigerated extruders, agglomeration rotating pans, high-speed agitators, and various molders are used.
  • Homogenization – Also known as emulsification, this process reduces the average particle size but increases the consistency of the food item. Emulsifiers, homogenizers, high shear mixers, or colloid mills are used as food processing technologies.

Heat Processing Equipment

Heat transfer equipment can be used to direct heat towards or away from the material. Heat processing equipment, in particular, can cause physical, as well as chemical, biological, and biochemical changes to the resulting product. These will affect the overall nutritional qualities by altering the chemical structure, enhancing the flavor, or serve as food preserving means by inhibiting or destroying pathogenic microorganisms or enzymes that can cause spoilage.

  • Baking/Roasting – This process produces physical and chemical changes and assists in preserving food. It’s suitable for bread, crackers, biscuit, and other flour- and dough-based products. Baking ovens, breach ovens, and continuous or semi-continuous ovens are used.
  • Blanching – Steam or heated water is used to reduce the number of pathogenic microorganisms and inactivate undesirable enzymes that can result in spoilage. Blanching also cleans, softens, and improves the overall quality. Suitable for fruits and vegetables, blanching uses either steam or hot water blanchers.
  • Dehydration – Heat is used to evaporate water to increase the shelf life of food products. It also reduces the weight and volume of the final food product. Convective, conductive, vacuum, or freeze dryers are used for dehydration.
  • Pasteurization – Processing food material under medium-heat temperatures (158-212°F) will inactivate most enzymes and microorganisms, which can cause spoilage. Pasteurization leads to products with a limited shelf life but without affecting the quality or other characteristics. Dairy, wine, beer, egg products, as well as fruit and vegetable products are pasteurized with in-container or continuous flow pasteurizers. Plate heat exchangers or concentric tube heat exchangers are also used.

Preservation Equipment

While some of the aforementioned heat food processing techniques offer varying degrees of preservation, there are other food processing technologies that do the same. There are several other preservation methods available, each with its own way of destroying microorganisms and enzymes.

  • Chemical – It uses both natural and non-natural chemicals that help prevent or inhibit food spoilage. These procedures can change the pH and other nutritional qualities of the food. Salting, smoking, and using various acids like acetic acid, vinegar, sorbic acid, or benzoic acid, among others, are all chemical food preserving techniques.
  • Irradiation – It uses ionizing radiation to inactivate enzymes and destroy microorganisms. Isotopes and electron accelerators are typically used to achieve the desired effect.
  • Refrigeration – It reduces the temperature to depress the microbial and biochemical microorganism and enzyme process. It helps maintain the characteristics of food items. The processing technology used for refrigeration includes chillers, cryogenic systems and mechanical refrigerators.

Packaging And Material Handling Equipment

Following the preparation, processing, and preservation stages, food will typically undergo one or more post-processing operations such as packaging. As among the final food processing production cycle, packaging operations serve several functions. Among these, we can include the containment of food, as well as its long-term protection and preservation. In addition, packaging also provides enhanced convenience to the consumer, as it allows the food to be portioned by weight or volume, or it can be more easily used, stored, transported, or distributed.

Lastly, packaging also helps identify the food contents by communicating the ingredients, nutritional value, cooking instructions, handling, storage, and more. Packaging also allows for branding and marketing material. Also, food packaging is available in several forms, such as bottles, cans, sealed bags, jars, boxes, and more. Depending on the type of packaging, food material, and other operations, the equipment used can vary significantly.

Material Handling and Conveying Equipment

As far as material handling is concerned, the food processing industry has traditionally used a wide variety of different systems. Simply put, material handling equipment is used to transport food material through the food processing facility, between the preparation, processing, preservation, and packaging stations. Flat belts, bucket elevators, pneumatic, augers, and aero-mechanical conveyors have been typically used in the past. However, these systems have had a tough time keeping up with the trends taking place in the industry, such as integration, automation, cross-contamination, and cost-efficiency.

Tubular drag conveyors, on the other hand, have managed to provide processed food manufacturers with the necessary flexibility and integration capability for many specialty food material types and processes. Tubular drag cable and disc conveyor systems are excellent for all sorts of processed food industries, be it breakfast cereals, frozen fruits and vegetables, party mixes, snack foods, and other food items requiring attention to added-value, fragile and specialty materials and products.

Cablevey’s Cereal Conveyor Systems can move up to 2,000 cubic feet of product per hour (42.4 m3/h) in an enclosed tube without the use of air. They also come available in a multitude of layouts and enhance food safety by eliminating the risk of product separation, degradation, or cross-contamination. For these reasons, as well as the enhanced design flexibility of tubular cable and disc conveyors, these systems also require far less maintenance than their counterparts.