Many producers have turned to high pressure to make food safe for years—but now may the perfect time for this method to go mainstream.
Credit: Photos courtesy of Lexie Murray / Red Door Communications

You probably know that many dairy products are made safe for consumption with pasteurization, a process that uses heat for a prolonged period of time to kill off harmful bacteria. And while the food industry still uses pasteurization (along with other methods) to keep our food safe, Americans are experiencing more food recalls than ever before. So, what gives?

Food manufacturers have had to get innovative and find new processes to keep consumers safe. One such safety procedure is called high-pressure processing, in which food is highly pressurized in order to eliminate foodborne bacteria. This method is particularly promising for perishable products designed to offer your microbiome a probiotic boost.

Dr. Errol Raghubeer is a food scientist who has directly pioneered the growth of HPP in the food industry as part of his role at Avure Technologies. He says that high-pressure processing, otherwise known as HPP, could help make fresh products safe for consumption while also retaining many of their natural benefits.

"Unlike heat pasteurization, HPP offers all the benefits that comes with killing bacteria using heat, without having to use chemicals to supplement other methods being used," Raghubeer says.

Raghubeer explains that HPP has the most potential for fresher, nutritious products, as these often lose nutrients if they’re exposed to high heats or chemical preservatives. Depending on how much pressure is used (and for how long), potentially harmful bacteria is killed without affecting food's nutritional content.

"When you expose foods to HPP, microorganisms are destroyed, but foods itself are not effect, covalent bonds are not damaged, and [HPP] leaves nutritional content intact. It helps establish a longer shelf life without actually altering nutritionals," he says. "You'll need a refrigerator for foods that go through the HPP process because we don't sterilize the item in this method: we simply target harmful food pathogens."

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What kind of grocery staples might be produced in this way? Anything naturally containing moisture, Raghubeer says—including things like juices, vegetables, fruit, and even poultry and other meat products. The first batch of items bearing a new HPP seal include salad dressings, dips, guacamole, hummus, and other ready-to-eat products.

"Using pressure to make foods safe isn't limited by categories, like dairy—it's limited by moisture content. Nuts, for example, do not have enough moisture to be highly pressurized," Raghubeer says.

Given the recent uptick in interest around gut health-boosting foods, Raghubeer says scientists and processors familiar with HPP have found a way to get rid of foodborne bacteria that could lead to widespread outbreaks—without actually killing good bacteria.

"It really depends on the food and its pH balance.... But if you cut the time the food is exposed to pressure down, you'll get the food safety aspect that comes from pasteurization while preserving true probiotics," he says. "In the early days, we overprocessed, wanting to kill every possible organism inside the product—but HPP is different."

You may already see some items in your grocery market that are touting their use of HPP technologies. We had a chance to try Good Foods guacamole, which is currently available at Target, Sprouts, Publix, and Hy-Vee stores, and found it stacked up to most other store-bought varieties we had previously tasted. Other highly pressurized foods include Applegate Farms' oven-roasted turkey breast and Suja's line of organic pressed juices.