Advancing Laboratory Equipment
Ease of use and speed to market make progressive laboratory technology appealing
Technological advancements, including performance and accuracy, are persevering factors impacting laboratory and testing equipment for beverages. Not a single beverage hits the shelves without first undergoing extensive testing on the beverage itself and its packaging. The necessary tests conducted for microorganisms and product traits are standard, but lab equipment manufacturers are making equipment that is not.
For Mettler Toledo, Columbus, Ohio, the parameters the company is concerned with in the beverage laboratory are acidity (which relates to taste), vitamin C content, density and refractive index, with the last two tests relating to sugar content. Mettler Toledo’s Tore Fossum, instrument technical manager, has seen the main advancements in laboratory technology come from automation.
“The lab analyst’s task is made easier by such advances as a one push-button titrator, automated sample changing and combined density/refractive index meters with automated sample changing,” Fossum says.
Acidity and vitamin C testing originally were conducted by hand titration. Automated titration instruments today simplify what was a complex, laborious task to a simple procedure, Fossum explains. Fewer mistakes are made with new, easy-to-use equipment, and this means more consistent quality and fewer rejects. “In the end, it means more customer satisfaction and brand loyalty,” Fossum says.
Sugar determination also was previously tested by manual hydrometer or pycnometer. Today, technicians use vibrating tube digital densitometer and angle of diffraction digital refractometers. “Results are more accurate and precise, and analysts have much simpler operational protocols to follow for testing,” Fossum says. “The net result is that less time is required for determinations, and product quality is better.”
Mettler Toledo developed a new entry-level titrator line consisting of three instruments, the DL15, a basic endpoint titrator; the DL22 Food & Beverage Analyzer; and the DL28 End Point/Equivalence Point titrator. These tools offer effortless set-up and simple function keypad with predefined formulas for routine titration and keep training efforts to a minimum. Acid/base content determinations can be performed with the DL15 end-point titrator. The DL15 is suited to provide an endpoint titration or a pH measurement. Pre-defined methods for testing common acids and bases, such as sodium hydroxide in process water or citric acid in beverages can be done by simply choosing the method and pressing a key.
Additionally, the DL22 Food & Beverage Analyzer includes methods with predefined parameters most commonly used in the beverage industry. Salt content, sulfur dioxide in wine and vitamin C are some of the pre-defined methods for beverage testing. Also offering uncomplicated usage, the DL28 End Point/Equivalence Point titrator for use in the water industry offers pre-programmed, commonly used methods in addition to further customized parameter sets to fine tune analyses.
Performance and price are the two most divergent trends developing in the laboratory and testing equipment marketplace. A general decrease in the cost of routine instrumentation has continued during the past two decades. The main thrust behind this decrease is the drop in the price of personal computers that are required to control many of these instruments, says Eric Bukowski, marketing specialist for Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, Columbia, Md.
A secondary influence is linked to the natural maturation process of many of the technologies. “Simply put, as an analytical technique or category of instrumentation becomes commonplace, vendors and manufacturers are forced to produce instruments with higher performance at a lower cost in order to maintain their market share,” Bukowski explains. “In general, the current laboratory instrumentation in the market is more accurate, more sensitive, faster and more flexible than instruments of eight to 10 years ago.”
Speed of analysis is often a consideration of beverage companies. Speed is usually determined by instrumental run time, when in fact, the rate-limiting step is more often caused by extensive sample preparation routines, Bukowski says.  
Spectroscopic analysis, such as ultraviolet visual range near infrared (UV-Vis-NIR) and fourier transform infrared (FTIR), in general requires fewer pre-treatment steps than the average chromatographic method. In addition, the tests are widely considered to be non-destructive sampling techniques. “Modern FTIR sampling techniques, such as an attenuated total reflectance (ATR), can greatly reduce the time allotted to sample preparation and are also considered non-destructive,” Bukowski explains. “This specific accessory can be used for a wide variety of samples such as liquids, powders, pastes, gels and solids.”
Technicians also are interested in the ability to retrofit the basic bench-top instrument with advanced capabilities at a later time. “Educated customers are often looking past their immediate needs toward what their analysis needs might require in the future,” Bukowski says. “These future considerations often carry considerable weight in their decision-making process.”
In the beer industry, hops acid analysis has always been crucial for macro-beer brewers. Specifically, alpha-acids, beta-acids and reduced isohumulones in brewing hops are of particular interest for analysis due to the roles they play in providing bitterness and aroma to the beer. The change in the American beer market toward micro-brewed beers has led to smaller companies investing in laboratory equipment to perform these measurements, Bukowski says.
“The needs of these customers are remarkably different than their macro-brewing competitors,” he explains. “They very rarely have a dedicated chemist on staff to carry out the approved AOAC and ASTM measurement methods.”
For hops acid analysis, Shimadzu Scientific Instruments offers software that can input the routine calculations. This allows for the analysis to be performed by someone with little scientific training or experience.
For the wine industry, spectroscopic analysis traditionally has revolved around elemental analysis of components such as calcium and iron. The commercial evolution of fourier transform near infrared (FT-NIR) instrumentation has created a renewed interest in spectroscopic analysis within the winemaking community, Bukowski says.  
“The latest buzz has been created by the ability to quantitate multiple analytes from a single spectrum,” he says. “The Shimadzu IRPrestige can be set up to develop NIR methods to quantitate such parameters in wine such as ethanol, sugars and acids. The vintners on the cutting edge of the technology are incorporating fiber-optic probes into these analyses as well.”
Ease of use
Beverage manufacturers often develop a great-tasting new product formulation in the lab. But when it comes time to process the beverage using FDA processing standards, the flavor can be lost. The formulation then needs to be changed to produce the product characteristics the company wants it to possess after it has been processed.
MicroThermics, Raleigh, N.C., specializes in continuous development processing, which enables companies to process in their laboratories. Technicians develop a formulation and can manufacture 2 gallons of the product the way it would be produced industrially.
MicroThermics normally runs 13 to 17 different products in a day whereas a pilot plant could only produce two or three in a day. MicroThermics actually scales up and scales down thermal processes, and builds equipment based on that research.
For beverages, products can be heated on a continuous basis in two ways. One is through a heat exchange or indirect heating, which is the most popular heating method used industrially. Another method is called steam injection in which a technician pumps the product and injects steam into it, which causes the temperature to go up. But the technique also adds water so it dilutes the product. To cool the product back down, processors use a vacuum cooler and draw steam out of the product. For soymilks and products that contain substantial amounts of protein, the proteins can burn on the wall of the heat exchanger so injection heating must be used.
With steam injection commonly used worldwide and gaining popularity in the United States because of the advent of high-protein drinks, MicroThermics designed a Direct Indirect processor that can perform both processes in the laboratory. From a simple tea or juice to milk and soy drinks, the equipment allows processors to operate in the laboratory with one piece of equipment.
To further provide operators with ease of use, MicroThermics has integrated a new touchscreen PLC into its indirect processor. The PLC has a menu that walks the operator through how to set up the equipment for different types of processes. It walks technicians through equipment start-up and what to do at each phase. It allows an untrained operator to run the equipment through about 35 indirect heating processes.
The company also has developed miniature production plants that are suitable to be used for high-value, low-volume products such as microbial media. In the beverage industry, the system may be integrated with a filler for test market samples. The research equipment runs normally between 1 and 2 liters a minute. The mini production systems can be set up to be filed with the FDA.
“Coming out with the Direct Indirect processor and the PLC will allow researchers to get their products to market faster,” says David Miles, vice president of MicroThermics. “Instead of having to make 30 gallons of each product and going to pilot plant and having the support staff for a pilot plant, this technology really shortens that cycle. You are now using a smaller, more educated staff, because the researcher can run the equipment that tells them what to do next.” BI