Properly managing water activity in tortillas and understanding how it interacts with other ingredients can dramatically affect the quality and shelf life of flatbread products, according to speakers at the Tortilla Industry Association’s technical conference, held May 10-11 in Anaheim, CA.

More than 152 attendees — a record number for a TIA Tech seminar — learned how adding gums, reducing sodium and adjusting the production process can dramatically change the taste and texture of tortillas.

The seminar also addressed how to reduce tortillas’ exposure to mold and bacteria by having packaging operators use proper hygiene when handling products, thoroughly washing baskets and trays, cleaning swamp coolers regularly, creating a positive air flow in the facility and relying on other good manufacturing practices, especially after the product leaves the oven.

Overall, shelf life is determined by three factors: the environment, food product consistency and preservative ingredients, according to Ann Rolow, business director, Kemin Food Technologies, Des Moines, IA. She suggested tortilla manufacturers conduct an environmental survey to determine where any contamination might be located in a facility. “The oven exit to package is critical,” she added. “Preservatives inhibit microbe growth, but the higher the contamination rate, the shorter the time a preservative can inhibit such growth.”

Often, developing new products requires creative formulation solutions. “Working with your vendors and asking questions regarding what is new and how it could assist with meeting today's market trends is the best means to develop your next generation of products,” Ms. Rolow said.

A recent example involves the trend toward sodium reduction. “Switching from dry sodium propionate to calcium propionate will reduce sodium, but it may also give a negative impact on taste,” she said.

For improved taste and better dough machinability, Ms. Rolow noted, sodium propionate is still the most preferred option, followed by potassium and calcium alternatives. Another way to reduce sodium involves using liquid preservatives that contain a significantly reduced amount of sodium compared to dry forms. An excess of sodium hydroxide, she said, is used to create a dry preservative with a pH of 8 to 10, while most liquid versions have pH 7 and below.  

Third-party audits can be one way to verify if an operation is following best practices and effective sanitation procedures. Judi Lazaro, director of customer relations for AIB International, Manhattan, KS, provided tips on how to prepare for an audit by paying attention to the product zone, which she described as areas where any piece of equipment that comes in contact with the product or ingredients. She also noted the product zone extends to all areas above where the product is being produced because dust, mold and bacteria can fall on a product from ceilings as well as overhead piping, conveyors and equipment.

The seminar addressed the common product quality challenge involving stacked tortillas sticking together before the products’ shelf life expires. Even if tortilla manufacturers conduct a 24-hour, post-based evaluation, product delamination or other issues could develop a week or two later as the package sits on the shelf, in consumers’ homes or in food service establishments, noted Billy Lloyd, division food safety and quality assurance manager in national accounts for Tyson Foods, Springdale, AK.

Although there is not a lot of research on water activity and stickiness, Dr. Lloyd pointed out to one study that noted moisture migration could be a root cause of stickiness, and the issue can become worse when there is significant rise in water activity in the product.

Eliminating stickiness isn’t easy because a host of interactive forces cause this pesky problem. For example, too much cooling time might cause lend tortillas to sticking together. Dr. Lloyd suggested that tortilla manufacturers should find the optimal cooling time for their products. Too much cooling, he said, can exacerbate a stickiness problem.

Operators also should examine their production process to discover better ways to bind water in their products. In a few cases, adjusting the formula can backfire if not done properly. “If you have a sticking problem, don’t take water out of the formula,” he said. Doing so may actually hurt product quality, he added.

Jim Kabbani, TIA’s executive director, noted the association’s next big event — its annual convention and trade exposition with more than 700 attendees and an exhibit hall — will be held Sept. 10-11 at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, NV.

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