5.2 Preservation by reduction of water content: drying/dehydration and concentration

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5.2.1 Water and water activity (aw) in foods

Micro-organisms in a healthy growing state may contain in excess of 80% water. They get this water from the food in which they grow. If the water is removed from the food it also will transfer out of the bacterial cell and multiplication will stop. Partial drying will be less effective than total drying, though for some micro-organisms partial drying may be quite sufficient to arrest bacterial growth and multiplication.

Bacteria and yeasts generally require more moisture than moulds, and so moulds often will be found growing on semi-dry foods where bacteria and yeasts find conditions unfavourable; example are moulds growing on partially dried fruits.

Slight differences in relative humidity in the environment in which the food is kept or in the food package can make great differences in the rate of micro-organism multiplication. Since micro-organisms can live in one part of a food that may differ in moisture and other physical and chemical conditions from the food just millimetres away, we must be concerned with conditions in the "microenvironment" of the micro-organisms. Thus it is common to refer to water conditions in terms of specific activity.

The term "water activity" is related to relative humidity. Relative humidity is defined as the ratio of the partial pressure of water vapour in the air to the vapour pressure of pure water at the same temperature. Relative humidity refers to the atmosphere surrounding a material or solution.

Water activity or aw is a property of solutions and is the ratio of vapour pressure of the solution compared with the vapour pressure of pure water at the same temperature. Under equilibrium conditions water activity equals:

aw = RH / 100

When we speak of moisture requirements of micro-organisms we really mean water activity in their immediate environment, whether this be in solution, in a particle of food or at a surface in contact with the atmosphere.

At the usual temperatures permitting microbial growth, most bacteria require a water activity in the range of about 0.90 to 1.00.

Some yeasts and moulds grow slowly at a water activity down to as low as about 0.65.

Qualitatively, water activity is a measure of unbound, free water in a system available to support biological and chemical reactions. Water activity, not absolute water content, is what bacteria, enzymes and chemical reactants encounter and are affected by at the micro-environmental level in food materials.

Two foods with the same water content can have very different aw values depending upon the degree to which water is free or otherwise bound to food constituents. Fig. 5.2.1 is a representative water absorption isotherm for a given food at a given temperature. It shows the final moisture content the food will have when it reaches moisture equilibrium with atmospheres of different relative humidities.

Thus, this food, at the temperature for which this absorption isotherm was established, will ultimately attain a moisture content of 20% at 75% RH (relative humidity). If this food was previously dehydrated to below 20% moisture and placed in an atmosphere of 75% RH, it would absorb moisture until it reached 20%. Conversely, if this food was moistened to greater than 20% water and then placed at 75% RH, it would lose moisture until it reached the equilibrium value of 20%.

Under such conditions some foods may reach moisture equilibrium in the very short time of a few hours, others may require days or even weeks. When a food is in moisture equilibrium with its environment, then the aw of the food will be quantitatively equal to the RH divided by 100.

Qualitatively, water activity is a measure of free or available water, to be distinguished from unavailable or bound water. These states of water also bear a relationship to the characteristic sigmoid shapes of water absorption isotherm curves of various foods.

Thus, according to theory, most of the water corresponding to the portion of the curve below its first inflection point (below 5% moisture in Fig. 5.2.1) is believed to be tightly bound water, often referred to as an adsorbed mono-molecular layer of water. Moisture corresponding to the region above this point and up to the curve's second inflection point (above 20 % moisture in Fig. 5.2.1) is thought to exist largely as multi-molecular layers of water less tightly held to food constituent surfaces.

Figure 5.2.1 Water sorption isotherm

Beyond this second inflection point moisture generally is considered to be largely free water condensed in capillaries and interstices within the food. In this latter portion of the sorption isotherm curve small changes in moisture content result in great changes in a food's aw. In Fig. 5.2.2 are illustrated the moisture sorption isotherms for various dried fruits at 25 C °.

Figure 5.2.2 Moisture sorption isotherms for various dried fruits at 25°C


5.2.2 Preservation by drying/dehydration

The technique of drying is probably the oldest method of food preservation practiced by mankind. The removal of moisture prevents the growth and reproduction of micro-organisms causing decay and minimises many of the moisture mediated deterioration reactions.

It brings about substantial reduction in weight and volume minimising packing, storage and transportation costs and enable storability of the product under ambient temperatures, features especially important for developing countries. The sharp rise in energy costs has promoted a dramatic upsurge in interest in drying world-wide over the last decade. Heat and mass transfer

Dehydration involves the application of heat to vaporise water and some means of removing water vapour after its separation from the fruit/vegetable tissues. Hence it is a combined/simultaneous (heat and mass) transfer operation for which energy must be supplied.

A current of air is the most common medium for transferring heat to a drying tissue and convection is mainly involved.

The two important aspects of mass transfer are:

In order to assure products of high quality at a reasonable cost, dehydration must occur fairly rapidly. Four main factors affect the rate and total drying time:

It is generally observed with many products that the initial rate of drying is constant and then decreases, sometimes at two different rates. The drying curve is divided into the constant rate period and the falling rate period.

Surface area. Generally the fruit and vegetables to be dehydrated are cut into small pieces or thin layers to speed heat and mass transfer. Subdivision speeds drying for two reasons:

Temperature. The greater the temperature difference between the heating medium and the food the greater will be the rate of heat transfer into the food, which provides the driving force for moisture removal. When the heating medium is air, temperature plays a second important role.

As water is driven from the food in the form of water vapour it must be carried away, or else the moisture will create a saturated atmosphere at the food's surface which will slow down the rate of subsequent water removal. The hotter the air the more moisture it will hold before becoming saturated.

Thus, high temperature air in the vicinity of the dehydrating food will take up the moisture being driven from the food to a greater extent than will cooler air. Obviously, a greater volume of air also can take up more moisture than a lesser volume of air.

Air velocity. Not only will heated air take up more moisture than cool air, but air in motion will be still more effective. Air in motion, that is, high velocity air, in addition to taking up moisture will sweep it away from the drying food's surface, preventing the moisture from creating a saturated atmosphere which would slow down subsequent moisture removal. This is why clothes dry more rapidly on a windy day.

Some other phenomena influence the drying process and a few elements are summarised below.

Dryness of air. When air is the drying medium of food, the drier the air the more rapid is the rate of drying. Dry air is capable of absorbing and holding moisture. Moist air is closer to saturation and so can absorb and hold less additional moisture than if it were dry. But the dryness of the air also determines how low a moisture content the food product can be dried to.

Atmospheric pressure and vacuum. If food is placed in a heated vacuum chamber the moisture can be removed from the food at a lower temperature than without a vacuum. Alternatively, for a given temperature, with or without vacuum, the rate of water removal from the food will be greater in the vacuum. Lower drying temperatures and shorter drying times are especially important in the case of heat-sensitive foods.

Evaporation and temperature. As water evaporates from a surface it cools the surface. The cooling is largely the result of absorption by the water of the latent heat of phase change from liquid to gas.

In doing this the heat is taken from the drying air or the heating surface and from the hot food, and so the food piece or droplet is cooled.

Time and temperature. Since all important methods of food dehydration employ heat, and food constituents are sensitive to heat, compromises must be made between maximum possible drying rate and maintenance of food quality.

As is the case in the use of heat for pasteurization and sterilisation, with few exceptions drying processes which employ high temperatures for short times do less damage to food than drying processes employing lower temperatures for longer times.

Thus, vegetable pieces dried in a properly designed oven in four hours would retain greater quality than the same products sun dried over two days.

Several drying processes will achieve dehydration in a matter of minutes or even less if the food is sufficiently subdivided. Drying techniques

Several types of dryers and drying methods, each better suited for a particular situation, are commercially used to remove moisture from a wide variety of food products including fruit and vegetables.

While sun drying of fruit crops is still practiced for certain fruit such as prunes, figs, apricots, grapes and dates, atmospheric dehydration processes are used for apples, prunes, and several vegetables; continuous processes as tunnel, belt trough, fluidised bed and foam-mat drying are mainly used for vegetables.

Spray drying is suitable for fruit juice concentrates and vacuum dehydration processes are useful for low moisture / high sugar fruits like peaches, pears and apricots.

Factors on which the selection of a particular dryer/ drying method depends include:

There are three basic types of drying process:

The scope has been expanded to include use of low temperature, low energy process like osmotic dehydration.

As far dryers are concerned, one useful division of dryer types separates them into air convection dryers, drum or roller dryers, and vacuum dryers. Using this breakdown, Table 5.2.1 indicates the applicability of the more common dryer types to liquid and solid type foods.

TABLE 5.2.1 Common dryer types used for liquid and solid foods .

Dryer type Usual food type
Air convection dryers  
kiln pieces
cabinet, tray or pan pieces, purées, liquids
tunnel pieces
continuous conveyor belt purées, liquids
belt trough pieces
air lift small pieces, granules
fluidized bed small pieces, granules
spray liquid, purées
Drum or roller dryers  
atmospheric purées, liquids
vacuum purées, liquids
Vacuum dryers  
vacuum shelf pieces, purées, liquids
vacuum belt purées, liquids
freeze dryers pieces, liquids

Source: Potter, 1984

5.2.3 Fruit and vegetable natural drying - sun and solar drying

Surplus production and specifically grown crops may be preserved by natural drying for use until the next crop can be grown and harvested. Natural dried products can also be transported cheaply for distribution to areas where there are permanent shortages of fruit and vegetables.

The methods of producing sun and solar dried fruit and vegetables described here are simple to carry out and inexpensive. They can be easily employed by grower, farmer, cooperative, etc.

The best time to preserve fruits and vegetables is when there is a surplus of the product and when it is difficult to transport fresh materials to other markets. This is especially true for crops which are very easily damaged in transport and which stay in good condition for a very short time. Preservation extends the storage (shelf) life of perishable foods so that they can be available throughout the year despite their short harvesting season.

Sun and solar drying of fruits and vegetables is a cheap method of preservation because it uses the natural resource/ source of heat: sunlight. This method can be used on a commercial scale as well at the village level provided that the climate is hot, relatively dry and free of rainfall during and immediately after the normal harvesting period. The fresh crop should be of good quality and as ripe (mature) as it would need to be if it was going to be used fresh. Poor quality produce cannot be used for natural drying.

Dried fruit and vegetables have certain advantages over those preserved by other methods. They are lighter in weight than their corresponding fresh produce and, at the same time, they do not require refrigerated storage. However, if they are kept at high temperatures and have a high moisture content they will turn brown after relatively short periods of storage.

Different lots at various stages of maturity (ripeness) must NOT be mixed together; this would result in a poor dried product. Some varieties of fruit and vegetables are better for natural drying than other; they must be able to withstand natural drying without their texture becoming tough so that they are not difficult to reconstitute. Some varieties are unsuitable because they have irregular shape and there is a lot of wastage in trimming and cutting such varieties.

Damaged parts which have been attacked by insects, rodents, diseases, etc. and parts which have been discoloured or have a bad appearance or colour, must be removed. Before trimming and cutting, most fruit and vegetables must be washed in clean water. Onions are washed after they have been peeled.

Trimming includes the selection of the parts which are to be dried, cutting off and disposing of all unwanted material. After trimming, the greater part of the fruit and vegetables cut into even slices of about 3 to 7 mm thick or in halves/quarters, etc.

It is very important to have all slices/parts in one drying lot of the same thickness/size; the actual thickness will depend on the kind of material. Uneven slices or different sizes dry at different rates and this result in a poor quality end product. Onions and root crops are sliced with a hand slicer or vegetable cutter; bananas, tomatoes and other vegetables or fruit are sliced with stainless-steel knives.

As a general rule plums, grapes, figs, dates are dried as whole fruits without cutting/slicing.

Some fruit and vegetables, in particular bananas, apples and potatoes, go brown very quickly when left in the air after peeling or slicing; this discoloration is due to an active enzyme called phenoloxidase. To prevent the slices from going brown they must be kept under water until drying can be started. Salt or sulphites in solution give better protection. However, whichever method is used, further processing should follow as soon as possible after cutting or slicing.

Blanching - exposing fruit and vegetable to hot or boiling water - as a pre-treatment before drying has the following advantages:

During hot water blanching, some soluble constituents are leached out: water-soluble flavours, vitamins (vitamin C) and sugars. With potatoes this may be an advantage as leaching out of sugars makes the potatoes less prone to turning brown.

Blanching is a delicate processing step; time, temperature and the other conditions must be carefully monitored.

A suitable water-blanching method in traditional processing is as follows:

The average blanching time is 6 minutes. The start of blanching has to be timed from the moment the water starts to boil again after the cloth bag has been dipped into the pan. While the material is being blanched the cloth bag should be raised and lowered in the water so that the material is heated evenly.

When the blanching time is completed the cloth bag and its content should be dipped into cold water to prevent over-blanching. If products are over-blanched (boiled for too long) they will stick together on the drying trays and they are likely to have a poor flavour.

Green beans, carrots, okra, turnip and cabbage should always be blanched. The producer can choose whether or not potatoes need blanching. Blanching is not needed for onions, leeks, tomatoes and sweet peppers. Tomatoes are dipped into hot water for one minute when they need to be peeled but this is not blanching.

As a rule fruit is not blanched.

Use of preservatives.

Preservatives are used to improve the colour and keeping qualities of the final product for some fruits and vegetables. Preservatives include items such as sulphur dioxide, ascorbic acid, citric acid, salt and sugar and can either be simple or compound solutions.

Treatment with preservatives takes place after blanching or, when blanching is not needed, after slicing. In traditional, simple processing the method recommended is:

Care must be taken after each dip to refill the container to the original level with fresh preservative solution of correct strength. After five lots of material have been dipped, the remaining solution is thrown away; i.e. a fresh lot of preservative solution is needed for every 5 lots of material. The composition and strength of the preservative solution vary for different fruit and vegetables.

The strength of sulphur dioxide is expressed as "parts per million" (ppm). 1.5 grams of sodium metabisulphite in one litre of water gives 1000 ppm of sulphur dioxide. Details for solutions of different strengths are given in the following table.

TABLE 5.2.2 Dilutions of sodium metabisulphite with water to obtain "PM" of sulphur dioxide (SO2)

Grams per litre of water Grams per 20 litre tin of water
1000 1.5 30.0
2000 3.0 60.0
3000 4.5 90.0
4000 6.0 120.0
5000 7.5 150.0
6000 9.0 180.0
7000 10.5 210.0

One level teaspoon of sodium metabisulphite = c. 5 g.

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