Extrusion is a process which is a combination of a variety of unit operations. These operations include cooking, shearing, mixing, shaping, kneading, and forming, among others.
A popular method of preparing ready to eat foods and snacks is by the process of extrusion and is known as extrusion cooking (HTST). Extrusion processing is applied in the processing of starch and also pertinacious material. This technique has become an indispensable part of the food industry in the current scenario. The advantages of this type of cooking include
- Energy efficiency
- Lack of effluents during the process
- The flexibility to choose from a variety of ingredients, and as well as the shape and texture of the type of products to be produced
Extruded snacks are classified on the basis of three product types which have penetrated deep into the food industry due to their varying applications, which vary from their use in instant drinks to processed cheese. The following is a table which summarizes the above with a few examples.
|Based on Cereals||RTE and puffed breakfast cereals
Instant drinks, beverage bases and soups
Pre-gelatinized and modified starches
Crispbread and croutons
Pre-cooked composite flours
|Based on Sugar||Liquorice
Peanut brittle, toffee, caramel
|Based on Proteins||Surimi
Texturized vegetable protein
Pet foods, animal feeds and protein
The technology used in snack foods applies the principle of direct expansion and shaping which is similar to RTE cereal processes but is generally performed at lower contents to moisture. This is done so that a higher energy output is derived from the mechanical sources being employed. Other types of foods which use direct expansion are flat-breads to crisps, which are manufactured using the twin-screw extruder technology. This technology is also used for the production of crackers.
Manufacturers classify snacks or snack foods into three generations as follows:
- First Generation Snacks
- Simply Extruded Snacks
- This category includes the natural products which are used for the production of snacks.
- Potato chips, nuts, and popped popcorn are included in this category.
- Second Generation Snacks
- Expanded Snacks
- This category includes the majority of snacks.
- Almost all of the single ingredient snacks, simple shaped products like puffed corn curls, corn tortilla chips, and all snacks which have been directly expanded are included in this category.
- Third Generation Snacks
- Pellets or Half-products
- This category includes snacks produced from multi ingredients and pellets, which have been made by extrusion cooking.
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Most manufacturers of snacks employ a form of existing technology as the foundation for making snack products. However, variation needs to be incorporated for increasing the health image and the appeal of these products, either by the addition of nutrients or by the reduction of calories or fats. Extrusion technology makes it possible for such variation to be materialized.
Simply Extruded Snacks (or) First-generation Snacks
This category of snacks has the highest potential for growth among the different types of snack foods. There is a lot of space for innovation in these snacks which can capture consumer imagination. The examples of such innovation include 3-D snacks which come in all shapes and sizes. They are also shaped in the form of cartoons, animals, alphabets, etc.
In this category, it is the cost of raw material which plays a crucial role in the selling price of the finished product. Therefore, manufacturers tend to differentiate by decreasing the cost of raw material.
Expanded Snacks (or) Second-generation Snacks
As mentioned earlier, this category contains the majority of snack products. High-shear extruders are employed for producing expanded snacks. These snacks are defined by their low-calorie content, high-fiber and high-protein content. Onion rings, potato sticks, corn curls, and other 3-D snacks are some examples of this type.
Snacks of this type can be seasoned by the addition of a variety of different flavors, salts, sugars, oils, etc. The quality of expansion cooked products depends on the operation conditions of the extruder as well as the raw materials used in the process.
Third Generation Snacks
This category of snacks is cooked by extrusion and is performed at low pressure for the prevention of expansion. It is then dried to reduce the moisture content to about 10 percent which gives a glassy appearance to the product. A high moisture dough is used to facilitate the formation of pelletized products. Further, when the extrudate is forced through the forming die, the product shapes itself in the form of the dye, instead of expanding, which results in an intricately shaped dense pellet.
Co-extruded snacks are the most recent advancement in technology in the snack food industry. The technique of co-extrusion was discovered in 1984 and involves the combination of two different extruded streams for obtaining products which are composed of two components and are characterized by a dual color or texture.
This process aids in the production of snacks which have two different flavors or colors or textures. The most commonly produced snack is that of a cereal based outer tube with a cheese filling inside.
Scientists and engineers in the field of food manufacturing are now focusing on the relationship between the quality of the product and changes in composition, and are working on the enhancement of nutritional, functional, and sensory properties of extruded foods. With the increasing demand for convenience foods, the extruded snacks market is expected to further expand in the near future.