Seasoning Systems: Season to Taste ... Accurately

by Laurie Gorton
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A sanding of sugar, a dusting of flour, a coating of seasoning, a topping of seeds — the extra touch that helps “sell” the product can be the most expensive ingredient in the formula. For operators watching costs, the job is to not only make attractive baked foods and snacks but also produce them as efficiently and economically as possible. Accurate dispensing of expensive toppings and seasonings is essential. In other words, the equipment for applying toppings and seasonings must “put the seasonings just where the product is,” as Mark Hotze, director of operations, Burford Corp., Maysville, OK, stated.

Because sodium content is under increased scrutiny, labeling issues are also involved. The truth is, as pointed out by James E. Tiefenthaler Jr., president, Tiefenthaler Machinery Co., Inc., Waukesha, WI, sodium occurs naturally in many ingredients, but it is the salt on top of the potato chip that provides a visual reminder to consumers. Nevertheless, as Randy Fielding, president and owner, Christy Machine Co., Fremont, OH, observed, “The ability to accurately dispense seasonings (comes into play) when sodium labeling is an issue.”

Even with salt, appearance holds sway over consumer acceptance.“Remember, customers generally don’t titrate sodium out of a pound of chips (to determine its content),” said Michael Green, vice-president, Americas, TNA North America, Inc., Coppell, TX. “They look at the first chip and subconsciously allow its visual appearance to build their expectation of the flavor burst and crunch to decide whose bag of chips they’ll buy tomorrow.”

Current engineering developments in seasoning and topping equipment center on accuracy and efficiency. While speaking only for his company, Mr. Green expressed a viewpoint common to equipment manufacturers : “If we can build a better mouse trap, we’ll do it.”

TOP AND DUST.

Equipment choices for topping and seasoning are well-established, but engineers continue to tailor these technologies and adapt others to fit exacting customer needs. For example, dusting, a method used more often ahead of makeup, is now being employed to handle topical application of fine powders such as potato flour and cinnamon sugar at pre- and post-oven stations.

Topical application of seasonings involves a number of depositing methods: rotary, vein, screen and belt. “The most common is the rotating shaft, or mandrel, where shaft speed controls the volume of seasoning being put down,” explained Norman Searle, c.o.o., AXIS Automation Group, Inc., Waterloo, WI.“Vein is a metering method, where the size and depth of the veins are critical to the topping being dispensed.”

Belt systems address the problem of depositing sticky, moist and hard-to-flow materials at consistent rates that would otherwise have to be applied by hand. David Williams, president, R&D Machine, Dallas, TX, described current work on a belt system using compression rollers to manage the depositing of seed and vegetable pieces. Toasted onion bits present another application best suited to belt systems.

Mr. Searle noted that AXIS’ new patent-pending screen system, invented by company president Ty Sarajian, lays down even accurate patterns for dispensing materials such as seasonings and cinnamon sugar. “It began with a flour dusting application,” he noted.

Mr. Hotze reported that Burford is developing dusting units that can handle powdered sugar, cinnamon sugar and corn meal, as well as flour. “The new indexing feature now puts seasonings and toppings only where the product is,” he continued.

“The typical flour duster is a relatively simple machine, but we added the indexing and control technology from our Smart Seeder system,” said Scott Clemons, senior electrical engineer, Burford Corp. “The difference is the control system.” A sensor picks up the leading edge of the pan or row, and programming releases toppings only when product is present.

Electronic controls make a big difference. “We improved the control system to increase the accuracy of topping placement,” Mr. Hotze said. “The payoff to the customer is savings in toppings.”

“Some of the biggest pieces of the puzzle (to improving accuracy and economy) are the electronics — the sensors, servo drives, PLCs and variable-speed drives,” Mr. Tiefenthaler said.“With today’s electronics, you can easily trace materials, check trending and create a history.”

TUMBLING TOGETHER.

Application of toppings to snacks generally takes place within revolving drums where the finished products tumble together with their toppings to assure coverage on all surfaces.

Methods used to introduce toppings into tumbling systems were described by Eric Doern, product line manager, PPM Technologies, Newberg, OR. “The powder applicator uses a screw auger and rotary squirrel cage to dispense powder out the length of a tube and spread the product in air before applying to base product,” he said.“The scarf feeder uses a small vibratory conveyor to apply an even curtain of seasoning on the product. The electrostatic applicator puts an electric charge on the seasoning, which then attaches to product as it is attracted to a metal drum. The liquid applicator uses a pump and nozzle system to spray oil onto product. Our slurry applicator uses a pump and nozzle system to spray a mixture of powder and oil onto the product.”

To maximize flavor dispersion, TNA engineered its new flavor dispersion system with a bias-cut feeder isolated from the tumbler but synchronous with product infeed, according to Mr. Green. “We maximize flavor coverage by ensuring a gentle and effective tumbling motion and controlled travel through the tumbler, which is isolated from the infeed and, therefore, not compromised by the feeder’s motion,” he explained. Control feedback loops reduce the volume of seasoning in comparison with on-head seasoning systems.

Accumulation systems enable steady flow to seasoning tumblers, a method described by Clark Hicks, national sales manager, product handling group, Heat and Control, Dallas, TX, as “a buffer to keep products moving constantly through to the seasoning systems.” The company developed its Revolution gate to create true proportional flow. A main feature is its automatic feed adjustment system. “This allows the bagger and weigher to tell the distribution system how to regulate product flow to the seasoning system,” he said. “Information is relayed down the line in a continuous loop to maintain flow for efficiency approaching 100%.”

PPM’s closed-loop flavoring system uses real time feedback and control, according to Mr. Doern.

METRICS.

How much seasoning actually reaches the product being seasoned depends on the technology for dispensing the flavoring materials. It is a matter of metrics: gravimetric vs. volumetric. “This really strikes home with us,” Mr. Searle stated. When AXIS started producing topping systems under its own brand, its engineers compared methods and opted for the weight-based approach. “Doing it by weight means no longer guessing at the application rate,” he said. “Our system sits on load cells and measures the seasonings as they are deposited across 1- and 1.2-m lines, but there’s no reason the lines could not be wider.” Reduction in the cost of component technologies for loss-in-weight feeding improved the economics for the user, too, he observed.

At PPM, seasoning metering methods are also undergoing change. “Rather than use volumetric metering, we use the actual mass flow of product to apply the correct amount of seasoning.” Mr. Doern said. “This allows you to provide a constant mass flow of product into your process or adjust your seasoning rate based on the measured flow rate. The result is improved product quality and reduced seasoning cost.”

MACHINE IMPROVEMENTS.

Engineers are also addressing improvement of machine components. These changes involve sanitation, spare parts and even power connections.

For example, PPM reduced cleaning, sanitation and changeover time by developing a removable drum liner. “The easy-to-remove drum liner can be taken out and replaced with a thoroughly cleaned spare to begin running in seconds,” Mr. Doern said.

Adopting a universal parts strategy, AXIS engineers are working with component parts that are common to multiple machines or multiple uses within a single machine. “For example, one drive belt is common to four areas in the machine,” Mr. Searle explained. Equipment design also addresses future needs by providing access points for optional attachments.

Heat and Control recently introduced a replenishment system. Seasonings dumped into the floorlevel receiving hopper are conveyed by compressed air to the supply hoppers of the seasoning systems installed on the mezzanine above. “The replenishing system can be installed on the seasoning level to feed distant hoppers, too,” Mr. Hicks observed.

AXIS switched to a new plug and receptacle combination for power cords on its equipment. “We considered the problem of ‘arc flash’ that occurs when an electrical line is disconnected,” Mr. Searle said. “The new plugs first shut off the power before the cord can be disconnected.”

TEST, TEST, TEST.

Or, as Mr. Tiefenthaler said, “Sea salt doesn’t act the same as dehydrated crystallized salt in a seasoning system.” Equipment manufacturers and food processors must match seasoning equipment with product and plant conditions.

“You have to do your homework up front,” Mr. Hotze said. Vendors and processors must ask and answer questions about expected appearance, weight, granule size, oil content, moisture and many other variables. “The more information we get, the closer we can dial into their need,” he continued. Factors such as seasoning usage cost, sanitation time and total capital cost must also be factored into recommendations, according to Mr. Doern.

For some materials, the choice is relatively clear cut. “For poppy seed, we recommend our Smart Seeder; for cinnamon sugar, we recommend a duster,” Mr. Hotze said. “These are different technologies. The seeder uses a mandrel, while the duster employs a brush-type setup with a screen and template.”

Similarly, Mr. Tiefenthaler observed, “We would take a look at our T-Topper to put flavor on a cracker. When more precision is required, the recommendation would be our Pro-Salter.”

Many equipment manufacturers provide test sites at their own factories. Supplied with base products and seasonings from the customer, company engineers run trials and report back with samples of the finished products, videos of the line in operation and other test results. “Often, the customer buys directly off what they see in the video,” Mr. Fielding said.

Others take demonstration machines directly to customers’ plant.s “It really helps to be able to test a system in the field, especially for new applications. The plant environment is critical,” Mr. Searle said.

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