Niagara Bottling, one of the largest beverage manufacturers in North America, is seeing a continued shift by brands from hot fill and retort beverage processing to aseptic processing for beverages that are sensitive to certain microorganisms that could cause spoilage. Aseptic filling uses high temperatures for a short period of time to sterilize a beverage liquid. The liquid is then cooled to ambient temperatures and placed into a sterilized package within a sterilized processing environment until capped and sealed. Hot fill and retort methods, also used to package drinks that contain few or no preservatives, require heavier packaging, including glass, to withstand high temperatures for longer periods and during the filling process. According to Niagara VP of Commercialization Abhishek Shukla, the benefits of aseptic are 1) a better sustainability profile, 2) a longer shelf life, and 3) greater protection of the efficacy of functional ingredient, such as vitamins. “When it comes to the business potential, aseptic technology hasn’t even penetrated into the market yet, in terms of winning meaningful share of these sensitive beverages,” said Shukla, who spoke to BD about the expected industry shift. Shukla, a plastic process engineer, has managed green field projects for brands including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle. His project locations outside the US have included Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, where he most recently helped Vietnam’s THP Group convert the company’s flagship brands to aseptic processing. Shukla holds granted and pending patents for bottle design and process engineering, he said. As Niagara’s VP of Commercialization, Shukla is responsible for new product development and is primarily focused on aseptic manufacturing capabilities. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and space:
BD: Niagara’s business for a long time was centered on bottled water. How has the trend toward healthy and functional beverages broadened your focus?AS: Niagara’s main business used to be and still is water. Almost 10 years ago we installed one manufacturing line in Dallas to make hot fill beverages for private label and some brand owners. But we did not venture into other beverages in a big way until five years ago. Millennials and Gen Z are particular about their diet, health, and fitness. Then, the pandemic literally changed the perception about how one leads their life, not only among young people but across all ages. Protein drinks grew by about +21%. Meanwhile, CSD is declining, and water is very stable at +6.0 % to +7.0% every year. There’s a lot of growth and potential in functional and health drinks. We continue to see a preference for natural and clean ingredients over beverages containing a lot of sugar, artificial colors and flavors, preservatives.
BD: Why do you believe this growth in protein and functional drinks will lead to an explosion in aseptic packaging?
AS: We continue to see brands shifting to aseptic, which brings the potential for light weighting the current package. That is important from a sustainability standpoint. The light weighting of the package and a reduction in energy during manufacturing results in a substantially lower carbon footprint than what current hot fill technologies can provide. Also, with hot fill, you are continuously cooking your product. And when you are exposing your product for an extended period to high temperature, your vitamins and flavor degrade. There are a lot of products with natural flavors and colors that degrade with that heated process. Aseptic also improves the shelf life and taste profile of your beverage.
BD: What are the top five largest product categories that would be candidates to move into aseptic processing?
AS: Sports drinks or isotonics, milk-based or plant-based protein shakes, juices and juice drinks, teas, and coffees.
BD: How much of a barrier is the cost to migrate these big product categories into aseptic?
AS: There are two portions of the cost. One is your capex for the hardware you need to start a manufacturing facility. That’s definitely a big factor. But your manufacturing cost in aseptic is lower than for hot fill. When you go to aseptic PET, on average you can reduce your weight of the bottle by about 20% to 25%. Petroleum is so expensive and so is PET resin. And in hot fill, you are continuously cooking your product until the time it gets filled into the bottle. There’s a lot of energy being used. In aseptic, you do ambient filling, not hot or chilled, so you don’t use as much energy. Then in terms of water consumption, it is very low. And the technology doesn’t need as much human interface. So, in all the operation costs, aseptic is better and more aggressive compared to the other existing technologies.
BD: How long will it take for PET aseptic capacity to meet demand?
AS: Probably three years.
BD: How long does it take to develop a PET aseptic line?
AS: The timelines are a little bit longer compared to hot fill or CSD. Right now everything is completely broken because of supply chain issues. But pre-pandemic, when the supply chain was not that bad, you could have your hot fill line up and running in nine to 12 months from the date you cut the deal to purchase the equipment. An aseptic line would take 18 to 20 months because of the kind of hardware you need, which takes time to build.
BD: When you look at the capital expense cost, how much more does it require than a hot fill line or a retort line?
AS: If I have to give you a number, I will say at least 1.5X.
BD: How many PET aseptic lines do you have now and what is planned?
AS: We have one line which is up and running in Texas and two more in the Midwest. We have lines that are being installed or are on order to help create a network worldwide.
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