Valfoo is one of the leading family-owned suppliers of niche milk and whey products in Europe. Headquartered in Switzerland, and with a strong presence in Asia, the company works with key partner manufacturers, including prominent Swiss dairy producer, Cremo SA, to develop sustainable processes for specialist dairy products
In 2019, with an existing, successful global dairy products business and an expanding product range, Valfoo’s founders, brothers Daniel and Oliver Krayl set their sights on manufacturing the high value milk protein lactoferrin as a spray dried powder. Daniel and Oliver teamed up with GEA, and with experienced dairy manufacturer Cremo, to develop and fine tune a commercial process. The aim was to build a manufacturing facility for spray dried lactoferrin at Cremo’s Villars-sur-Glâne site.
With successful achievement and completion of the lactoferrin project in 2021, the partners became the first in Switzerland to establish an industrial process for generating lactoferrin powder using spray drying technology. The plant is now fully operational at the Cremo facility, and daily produces around 65 kg of lactoferrin powder that is marketed by Valfoo to manufacturers of infant and adult nutritional powders and health supplements, globally.
Valfoo, Cremo and GEA were ideally positioned to work together on the spray dried lactoferrin project. As the second largest milk processing company in Switzerland, and with more than 800 employees, Cremo has expertise in all aspects of dairy manufacturing, including the manufacture of advanced whey and milk protein powders. The company also has an independent relationship with GEA, spanning nearly 50 years, through which they have achieved a number of key technological milestones. In 2005 Cremo was the first company to install the GEA integrated filter dryer (IFD). Cremo was also the first company in Europe to introduce the state-of-the art GEA Cyclone Extra Efficiency (CEE) technology.
An ambitious project …
Developing a robust manufacturing process for spray dried lactoferrin was a significant achievement, the partners acknowledged. “Generating a spray drying process for producing powdered lactoferrin was an ambitious project, and a bold move,” Daniel commented. “The whey protein lactoferrin is very heat sensitive, and so powdered lactoferrin has traditionally been manufactured using freeze drying techniques, which are less heat intensive than spray drying, but which are more costly.”
Despite the challenges, Valfoo, GEA and Cremo set themselves the task of devising, testing, and fine tuning a spray drying process that would be more effective than freeze drying, and which could generate high purity powdered lactoferrin with precisely defined physicochemical properties.
“With Cremo on board as our manufacturing partner, in 2019 we approached GEA with the challenge of configuring spray drying equipment that could meet all of our requirements for producing lactoferrin with the required purity, functionality and other properties,” - Daniel Krayl, one of the founders of Valfoo
In fact, the partners were challenged with developing an entire process line - from extraction of the lactoferrin from liquid milk, through to the spray drying – that would avoid exposing the product to excess heat that could denature the protein, but which would also offer high efficiency, to keep product losses to a minimum.
Where the magic happens …
“Together with Cremo we had set up the wet line to isolate and purify liquid lactoferrin from milk, and we travelled to GEA’s test site at Copenhagen with a few milk bottles of lactoferrin, for initial tests,” Daniel said. “We worked with the GEA teams at the Copenhagen test site to set up the spray drying plant, including configuration of equipment features such as the spray dryer nozzle, and process parameters including inlet and outlet temperatures,” continued Oliver. “Achieving this was a major accomplishment, given the relatively small quantity of pure lactoferrin we had to work with.”
Critical to success of the project was the size of the dryer. By using an optimally sized dryer the partners were able to avoid subjecting the lactoferrin to excessive heat. The dryer size selected also minimized the amount of powder contacting with hot surfaces, which can occur when using smaller equipment.
So, while it may previously have been assumed that the heat associated with any spray drying technology would destroy the lactoferrin protein, as Daniel pointed out, “Actually, with the spray dryer from GEA, we don't have this problem. There is no significant protein denaturation.”
The GEA solution …
The spray drying process developed by GEA, Valfoo, and Cremo is carried out in a single-stage GEA VSD® spray dryer size 12.5, which has a short drying time, and is configured using GEA CEE cyclones to achieve a high yield. Even though the new lactoferrin spray dryer is smaller than the other spray dryers at Cremo, it offers the same features that fulfil industrial food process plant requirements.
“The spray dryer we now have is actually a perfect size for our product and has been optimized with respect to features such as the falling height of the powder that comes out of the dryer, the pressure, the nozzle design, and inlet and outlet heat,” Daniel noted. “Fine tuning these parameters helps to ensure reproducible processing to achieve the exact spray drying effects required, and so generate the highly defined particle size distribution and properties.”
Faultless operation …
Having completed, in 2020, the end-to-end process set up, from milk treatment through to spray dried lactoferrin powder packaging at the Cremo facility, Valfoo subsequently carried out some additional testing and fine tuning of the overall process. After the spray dryer was installed at Cremo, the processes had to be defined on site by the specialists from Cremo and GEA. The plant has been in operation faultlessly since Spring 2022, currently generating 10.000 kg lactoferrin per year, with the possibility to ramp up production to 25.000 kg. “Importantly, the GEA spray drying plant gives us plenty of scope to grow and expand,” Oliver noted.
“Developing a production process that makes it possible to manufacture high purity, functional lactoferrin using spray drying technology has hinged on the combined industry, process, product and engineering expertise of Cremo, Valfoo and GEA, working in partnership,” said Edgar Fasel, at Cremo.
“We already had in place the physical infrastructure and process knowhow and were confident that GEA could configure a spray drying solution that would generate a high-quality powder with the desired characteristics. The final plant meets all of our expectations.” - Edgar Fasel, Plant Manager at Cremo
The plus points for spray dried lactoferrin …
Spray drying has some major advantages over freeze drying for producing lactoferrin powder, cost notwithstanding. When compared with freeze drying processes, spray drying allows for more accurate, and consistent control of the powder particle size. This means that particle size distribution can be accurately defined, making it possible to produce a powdered product that is easier to dissolve in water. This feature is important for infant formula. Also, spray dried lactoferrin powder is paler than the reddish colored freeze-dried lactoferrin, and so any powdered product that includes the protein will be better from a visual perspective.
Separately, compared with freeze dried lactoferrin, spray dried formulations demonstrate characteristics that make it easier to press the powder into tablets, or to fill capsules. Tabletting spray dried lactoferrin requires less use of cellulose, silicon dioxide or other excipients, so the protein content per tablet can be higher, which makes for a higher quality product for nutraceutical applications.
“Achieving the goal of this important project with our long-term partner Cremo SA and Valfoo AG has been a perfect example of great teamwork,” said Johnny Bonke, Dairy Application Knowledge Manager, GEA. “From the very first test experiences in the GEA test facility, all three companies have worked closely together developing the plant setup and operating conditions, first in pilot scale, and then confirming all the test results for the commercial plant. We at GEA will continue to provide ongoing support to Valfoo and Cremo, growing the production of Swiss lactoferrin using our proven technologies”.