If you’ve ever had soup or milk or juice from a box, then you know the work that won the World Food Prize in 2007. Aseptic (sanitary) food processing technologies allow consumers in developed nations to toss a box of juice in a picnic basket. But these methods also preserve crops, prevent spoilage, and increase the availability of safe and nutritious foods.
Dr. Philip E. Nelson developed “innovative breakthrough technologies, which have revolutionized the food industry … in the area of large-scale storage and transportation of fresh fruit and vegetables,” according to the World Food Prize citation. Aseptic food processing allows juices and other liquid foodstuffs to be packaged and shipped around the world in mass quantities.
Here’s how it works. Once plant or animal products are made into food — fruits into juice, for instance — Nelson’s process allows sterilization of the food and the package, and the transfer of the food into the package. The output is a safe, stable product that can be easily transported without refrigeration, and can remain in storage for considerable periods of time before being shipped to market or being used by the consumer.
In the process, food is passed through a thin pipe in which it is rapidly heated to kill any pathogens, then quickly cooled to maintain the freshness of the food. Nelson began his innovative work while on the faculty at Purdue University in Indiana. The process already had been developed, but Nelson found ways to apply it on a large scale, as large as the 500,000-gallon containers used in intercontinental shipping.
Nelson’s techniques have benefitted developing world countries where crop spoilage can consume as much as 50 percent of yields in some places. Aseptic processing has also been a key technology in the expansion of feeding and nutrition programs in the developing world and in providing stores of products available for transport to regions stricken with disaster, such as the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
Nelson is the Scholle Chair Professor of Food Processing in the Department of Food Sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.