Microwave technology extends bread’s shelf life

by Jeff Gelski
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LUBBOCK, TEXAS — MicroZap, Inc. is seeking a strategic partner for its microwave technology designed to eliminate bread mold and increase shelf life, possibly to as long as 60 days, said Don Stull, chief executive officer of the Lubbock-based company.

Texas Tech University in Lubbock owns the MicroZap technology and licenses it worldwide to MicroZap, also in Lubbock. One published study showed MicroZap extended white bread’s shelf life to 60 days.

MicroZap needs to find a strategic partner to create a microwave big enough for industrial use, Mr. Stull said. MicroZap also has applied for grant money to develop a microwave for home use.

“We’ve got one on the drawing board,” Mr. Stull said.

The MicroZap technology involves treating the bread for 10 seconds inside a microwave oven that is designed for pathogen reduction. The microwave is similar to ones used in homes and does not have cancer-causing irradiation, Mr. Stull said.

The treatment may occur at any one of several times, including out of the oven, before the bread is sliced and when the bread is sliced. Packaging may be an ideal time to treat the bread, but bakers in that instance would need to use plastic tabs and not metal twist ties for the bags, Mr. Stull said.

Reducing chemical preservatives in the bread and extending distribution are two potential benefits for commercial bakers interested in using MicroZap. Mr. Stull said he wonders if consumers would want to buy 60-day-old bread. MicroZap has received requests from bakers in the United Kingdom who just want to add a few days to the shelf life, which in turn would increase their distribution range.

Getting bread to consumers before it spoils is sometimes a problem in less developed countries, he said. MicroZap thus might help in those instances.

Brian Strouts, head of research and technical services at AIB International, Manhattan, Kas., said microwave technology might be able to eliminate bread mold, but he said he wondered how other quality attributes such as staling, firmness and flavor would hold up over 60 days. Also, when consumers opened a bag of bread at home, recontamination potentially would occur.

Mr. Strouts said enzyme technology, or E.S.L. technology, generally has doubled the shelf life of bread, from about 10 days to about 20 days, over the past 20 years.

“Going from 20 to 60 days on softness would be a pretty big leap,” he said.

Mr. Strouts said he would like to know more about MicroZap technology.

“It’s interesting,” he said. “I’d really be interested in getting a unit in here and doing some applied studies.”

A Texas Tech University study on MicroZap appeared in the April 2008 issue of the Journal of Food Science. The study examined whether the technology might be used to develop white enriched bread that would last 60 days in meals ready to eat (M.R.E.s) used by the U.S. military.

The study involved an untrained sensory panel of 50 people from the Texas Tech University campus. It found the use of directional microwaves may be applied to white enriched bread to inhibit mold growth without causing detrimental effects on the quality or sensory attributes. With the application of directional microwaves, white enriched bread might be added to M.R.E.s and have an increased shelf life of up to 60 days, according to the study.

Besides bread, MicroZap technology may reduce pathogens in such foods as peppers, peanuts and turkey, Mr. Stull said. Each product will be different, partially because of water content, and may need a different treatment, he said. Jalapeno peppers, for example, may be treated for up to 40 seconds before suffering from quality degradation.

Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., received grant money in 2011 for similar research. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded a $5 million multiyear, multi-institutional grant to the university. The project seeks to expand the commercial possibilities of microwave technologies for the control of harmful bacterial and viral pathogens in packaged foods, particularly ready-to-eat foods, deli meats and seafood.

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