Popular drinks made from soy, oats or almonds are meeting the growing global demand for lactose-free and climate-friendly milk alternatives.

Manufacturing companies from organic startups to established food corporations are looking for the right production concepts to stay ahead of the curve in the dynamically growing market. Hygienic valves from the modular GEA VARIVENT® valve system provide essential tools for this, based on functional and safety concepts that have been setting standards in the dairy and food industries for decades. State-of-the-art valve technology is the key to ensuring fast system implementation, flexible process design and hygienically safe beverage products.

Contemporary drinks made from traditional plants

Plant-based drinks with milk-like properties look back on old traditions, especially in Asia, and industrially produced variants have also been around for decades. But since the turn of the millennium, both the variety and sales of these products have been growing faster and faster, as young, fitness-minded and environmentally conscious consumer groups have embraced the vegan milk alternative in coffee bars and supermarkets. Soy drinks are market leaders in East Asia, as are almond drinks in the USA, while oat drinks have emerged as top sellers in Europe. Other popular source crops are rice, millet, coconut or walnut, and some new milk alternatives are made from different pulses, such as peas.

When it comes to consumer preferences, regional factors play a role, but also the different properties of the raw materials: Soy drinks are comparable in protein content to cow’s milk, which helps with a wholesome vegan diet. Oats, on the other hand, can be grown in particularly eco-friendly ways. All plant drinks are naturally lactose- and cholesterol-free and rich in fiber. Special “Barista” variants offer coffee drinkers a perfect cappuccino foam. Most plant-based beverages are made for storage and sale at ambient temperature, like UHT milk, but yogurt and cheese-like preparations can be found on refrigerated shelves. Cooking cream and even chocolates made from plant extracts are also no longer uncommon.

Valve technology for complex challenges

All modern plant drinks are based on well-known crops, but the respective processing methods can differ greatly. With newer product variants, such as oat beverages, the standard process is not even fully established yet. Dairy corporations entering this market are facing a learning curve, in particular regarding the first process stages, in which the liquid basic product first has to be obtained by extraction and is not delivered like raw milk. The various grains, pulses and other source ingredients all have highly specific properties and requirements that must be taken into account. Smaller specialist plant drink producers at the other end of the manufacturer spectrum, often with an organic or vegan background, generally know their chosen crops well, but may need support in scaling up to industrial processes. Only the soy drink process is mature, and most soy drink manufacturers have industrial experience. The challenge for them, especially in the dynamic Asian core markets, is to be able to adapt their production quickly and flexibly to ongoing developments in demand and competition.

The global technology provider GEA has been supporting the food and beverage industry for years in the effort to develop and improve plant-based beverage production processes. The recognized health, environmental and climate benefits of plant foods have been key drivers in this endeavor. A global network of GEA specialist consultants and test centers is available to manufacturers and system planners, providing expertise and supplying all necessary system components – from technically advanced decanter centrifuges, UHT stations, hygienic valves, pumps, tank cleaners and piping systems to complete process systems.

GEA VARIVENT® Hygienic seat valves
GEA VARIVENT® Hygienic seat valves

Hygienic valve technology from the comprehensive GEA VARIVENT® modular valve system plays a central role in many system scenarios for modern plant-based beverages. Almost unlimited selection and combination options allow manufacturers to explore unusual process and product ideas. Safely isolated flow paths with mixproof double seat valves enable sophisticated functions as well as timesaving, permanently installed cleaning systems. GEA has developed and continuously perfected hygienic safety concepts that are considered a standard in many areas of plant engineering and have proven themselves over decades in the particularly sensitive dairy sector. Digital control tops for automated valve and system control are precisely adapted to the valve’s mechanical functions and ensure exactly controlled, reproducible processes. Plant automation is crucial for the ability to build complex process sequences, manage recipe changes and flexibly transfer successful plant setups to new facility extensions.

The manufacturing processes for most common plant drinks can be divided into three basic phases, (1) preparation and extraction, (2) processing of the resulting basic product and (3) dosing and filling. Each phase makes different demands on the valve technology and system equipment used.

Phase 1: Enzyme treatment and extraction

Whether soy, oat or rice drink production: Special attention must be paid to the first process steps, in which a liquid base is extracted from the raw beans, nuts or grains. It is not uncommon for several test runs to be necessary in this phase in order to create the right process for a marketable product.

The initial steps before extraction involve cleaning, grinding, and soaking of the delivered plant product. This is usually followed by enzyme treatment, carefully and individually planned, tested and carried out for each desired product variant, because each parameter – duration of treatment, raw material, temperature, the amount of water, contact with air or an intermediate deodorization step – can significantly influence the taste and feel of the result. In this phase, you can determine, for instance, how sweet an oat drink will become from the starch it contains or to what extent a soy drink retains the typical bean taste. (With almond drinks, the basic suspension is usually achieved using the fine almond flour, without extraction process.)

GEA VARIVENT® Control valve
GEA VARIVENT® Control valve

GEA can supply suitable components for any desired process variant. GEA VARIVENT® shut-off and divert valves as well as control and overflow valves for special functions guide the process flow at each station. Carefully designed flow paths that are free of dead spaces minimize product loss. Long-lasting sealings help reduce operating costs. Process operators can significantly reduce the consumption of valuable energy, water and cleaning agents. Less time and staff are needed for cleaning and maintenance. For numerous functions, such as process water supply, equally sophisticated GEA butterfly valves offer the same advantages, with particularly low energy consumption thanks to compact actuators and efficient control technology.

Phase 2: Heat treatment and additional processing

Steaming and homogenization steps can improve product quality in much the same way as in milk processing, and GEA VARIVENT® valves support this as they have for decades in dairy plants. Depending on the production goal, process planners can add further steps at this stage, such as filtration or deaeration or, if required, mix in flavors, vitamins or other additives.

With every process step, it becomes more and more important to safeguard the product medium against contamination with germs, allergens and other undesirable substances that can otherwise spoil the result and endanger the health of the consumer. The GEA VARIVENT® valve range has been consistently optimized in order to protect the necessary hygienic safety and to meet the highest requirements. Stainless steel housings free of dead spaces ensure a safe process, as do product-specific sealing materials that can, for example, withstand sugary liquids.

GEA VARIVENT® Mixproof valve
GEA VARIVENT® Mixproof valve

The mix-proof double seat valves in the GEA VARIVENT® portfolio make a particularly significant contribution to the implementation of perfectly hygienic processes. These valves are used to distribute different liquids between two pipelines, with one flow path safely shut off so that the liquids cannot mix. When the valve is closed (rest position) there are always two seals between the two pipelines. The functional principle of two independent and mutually securing valve seats was developed more than 50 years ago in today’s GEA competence center for hygienic valve technology in Buechen near Hamburg, Germany. At the same location, GEA engineers keep perfecting this principle today.

Mixproof CIP loops

With the aid of mixproof GEA VARIVENT® double seat valves, plant operators are able to implement complex, switchable CIP loops with permanently installed connections so that pipe sections can be cleaned without having to interrupt the entire process. The double seat valves carry out the switching processes and prevent any mixing of product and cleaning liquid.

Automated process control

The more advanced the beverage produced and the associated system, the more likely industrial manufacturers will rely on digital control and monitoring technology to ensure the pre-programmed flow of all production and cleaning operations. GEA VARIVENT® valve units are equipped with modern control digitally connected to the plant’s central control unit. This setup streamlines processing of the liquid base into beverage products from different recipes: The various mixing ratios and process schedules are simply programmed into the central control unit and can be called up with just a few clicks. The valve status is permanently digitally monitored but can also be visually checked at any time via a 360° LED signal. For greatest ease of use, the state-of-the-art control tops enable fully automatic commissioning of the valve, which greatly reduces the time and staff expenditure.

Phase 3: Dosing and filling

Towards the end of the process, most current plant-based beverages pass through a UHT station so that they can be sold at ambient temperature. In other cases, the product is pasteurized, then cooled, stored and transported in a cold chain.

UHT-treated product must be treated aseptically during the dosing and filling phase in order to avoid possible recontamination. Here too, hygienic GEA VARIVENT® valves can be applied to carry out selected functions. Special GEA Aseptomag® and D-tec® valves are available for critical applications in the Aseptic and UltraClean hygiene classes. Both these valve families are serviced by the same maintenance network as the other GEA valves.

New convenience products

GEA VARIVENT® Tank bottom valve
GEA VARIVENT® Tank bottom valve

In addition to the plant-based milk substitutes that are enjoyed pure or added to coffee, a growing variety of processed yogurt or cheese-like products can be found in supermarkets. Soy yogurts in various flavors have been popular for some time. Many emerging substitutes for semi-hard cheese are based on almond suspensions or coconut oil.

The infinitely versatile GEA VARIVENT® program also supports all the additional processing steps for these products, including the necessary CIP loops. Tank bottom valves and valves with special functions, such as sampling valves, support many new and different process ideas and enable the required mixing and fermentation processes.

Sustainable product recovery

GEA VARICOVER® Product recovery system
GEA VARICOVER® Product recovery system

The more any processed product sticks to the pipe walls and the more effort it takes to produce it, the more it pays off to recover the residues from the pipes before cleaning. GEA offers the GEA VARICOVER® product recovery system with a compressed air-driven pig for removing the product from the pipes. That way, valuable product remains in the process and more yield can be achieved with the same material input. In addition, the subsequent rinsing process is greatly relieved, which means significantly reduced freshwater consumption and an environmental benefit for the producer

Future-proof economical valve technology for from a single source

The world market for plant-based milk alternatives continues to grow. Automated hygienic valve technology is a key element in setting up the required process equipment. In general, the use of a standardized valve portfolio, as offered by GEA, is economically advantageous, as uniform service contacts and spare parts simplify maintenance and storage. Plus, the control functions of the valves are compatible across all application points. The GEA VARIVENT® valve family offers all the advantages so that manufacturers can lead their beverage to success faster, more flexibly and more safely.

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