Canned and jarred goods might be a staple in our pantries and lives now, but emerging technology may soon alter the way we preserve our food. The technology in question is Microwave Assisted Thermal Sterilization (MATS) from 915 Labs, a new approach to shelf-stable food which is clean-eating friendly.

In contemporary food processing—called “retort”—like canning, perishable foods are packaged in airtight containers and sterilized with high heat, placed in huge pressure cookers at temperatures of 250 degrees Fahrenheit for up to an hour to destroy microorganisms that cause illness or spoilage. In the process of sterilization however, the heat also damages food flavor, texture, color and nutritional content. To make foods palatable again, many food companies use a lot of salt, artificial flavor, texture and color-enhancing additives.

The MATS system still uses heat for sterilization, but has a dual process of a pressurized hot water bath—delivering heat externally—and a patented microwave energy delivery system at a frequency of 915 MHz—heating the package internally—after which the package is rapidly cooled. With this system, temperatures are raised to microorganism-killing levels much more quickly, which shortens heating time and minimizes food damage. According to 915 Labs, a salmon dish processed with MATS retains 5.3 mg of omega 3s, where a retort processing method would only leave 0.3 mg.

“By drastically reducing cooking times to preserve flavor and nutrients, MATS removes the need to use additives to enhance flavor and simply makes processed foods healthier,” said 915 Labs CEO Michael Locatis. This creates a potential for healthful packaged foods—foods that are processed (to be shelf-stable), but without the negative connotations we’ve come to associate with the word.

MATS is the first and only microwave sterilization process approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Developed by scientist Juming Tang at Washington State University, research and development has been supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Microwave Sterilization Consortium, including the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center, Kraft Foods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods and Rexam Containers.

MATS-B, a pilot-scale system, has been active in testing at the packaging companies AmeriQual and Wornick Foods. Wornick Foods recently announced that its MATS facility, which started as a limited in-house test facility in 2011, is now fully-functional, semi-continuous and open for outside “collaboration with food brands and processors who want to explore the benefits of MATS technology relative to their current manufacturing processes and new product development efforts.”

“Microwave sterilization has to do with potential and quality—more food companies reaching the potential of their new product ideas, with consumers reaping the benefits of better quality, food convenience and enjoyment,” said Wornick Foods Senior Technical Director John Reitzel in a news release.

915 Labs is planning to build its first commercial scale production system, MATS-150, capable of processing 150 packages a minute, in early 2016.


Posted on WholeFoods Magazine Online, 1/4/16