915 Labs offers a more minimal way to process and package food through its microwave assisted thermal sterilization, or MATS. The technology reduces food’s exposure to high heat, which helps preserve natural nutrients and flavors in food sans artificial additives, preservatives and high levels of sodium.

The company just announced it is building MATS-30 production capacity systems, capable of processing up to 10 million units annually, including single-serve trays, pouches and food service packaging formats. Many processors are currently using 915 Labs’ small-scale MATS-B systems to develop recipes and for small production runs. However, the new systems will allow larger scale processing and more partnerships with companies looking to tap into new consumer preferences and changing food distribution strategies.

One such partnership is with Amazon—the online retailer that just recently agreed to buy Whole Foods. 915 Labs is working to create two dishes, a mac & cheese and vegetable and sausage frittatas, that will be marketed through the Amazon Exclusive platform.

FE talked with Mike Locatis, CEO of 915 Labs, about the company’s technology, the future of direct-to-consumer packaged food sales and Amazon’s venture into food distribution.

FE: How does your technology’s ability to produce minimally processed food that can be shipped at ambient temperatures lend itself well to direct-to-consumer packaged food delivery? How can this disrupt the traditional food distribution strategies?

Locatis: Consumers are increasingly turning their backs on the ‘center of the store’ and frozen aisles and buying instead from the fresh and prepared sections of grocery, convenience stores and other retailers. At the same time, online retailers are ramping up their product lines to facilitate the burgeoning direct-to-consumer distribution channel. Online food sales are expected to grow five-fold over the next decade, with Americans spending upwards of $100 billion for at-home delivery by 2025.

Bottom line, retailers need a greater volume and variety of high quality, clean label packaged foods to meet consumer demand. From a sustainability standpoint, packaged foods that do not require a cold-chain are ideal. MATS threads that needle because the technology allows food companies to develop clean label recipes and package a variety of nutrient-rich foods for the shelf, including many items that have never been successfully thermally processed, such as eggs; whole chicken breasts, salmon filets, vegetables; pastas and rice.

MATS-Made foods are sterilized—the gold standard in food safety—but our advanced technology minimizes the time food is exposed to high heat, which means nutrients, color, texture and flavors stay intact. Because the food is undamaged by heat, no artificial additives or excess salt need to be added. MATS gives e-commerce providers and subscription food plans the ability to ramp up their product lines of better-for-you, shelf stable foods — from complete meals and meal components to beverages.

FE: Do the products need to be refrigerated once they reach the retailer or customer? How long is the shelf life of these MATS produced products?

Locatis: The shelf life of a MATS-Made shelf stable product is typically one year. These products can be shipped and stored at room (ambient) temperature.

The MATS system can also be used to pasteurize foods and beverages—the process is shorter and involves lower temperatures than sterilization. Pasteurization destroys some but not all disease-causing pathogens in food and as a result, have a shorter shelf life and must be refrigerated.

We have customers working with our pilot-scale MATS systems to develop recipes and products for both the shelf and the chilled case. While both pasteurized and sterilized foods have their place, creating a wider variety of shelf stable foods is a highly sustainable solution for the market.

FE: What types of dishes can potentially be produced with MATS?

Locatis: Any food or beverage that will benefit from a lower cooking temperature and processing time is ideal for MATS processing.

Our general list of foods for MATS processing includes:

  • Pastas & Sauces
  • Soups
  • Vegetables
  • Meats & Seafood
  • Complex meals
  • Beverages & Smoothies
  • Hummus & Dips

Both baby food and pet food manufacturers are very interested in the nutrient-retention improvements available through MATS. The shorter heat time in our microwave sterilization process results in less degradation to the micronutrients in food.

For example, MATS-Made asparagus retain 55 percent of their vitamin C, compared to just 5 percent of the vitamin surviving conventional thermal processing (also called retort). In a salmon filet, 69 percent of the important vitamin B called thiamine remains in the food, compared to just 31 percent of the vitamin in a salmon that has been processed with retort.

Nutrient-retention is obviously very important to baby food manufacturers who are producing foods for our most vulnerable population. Pet food manufacturers are also working to remove artificial ingredients and fillers from their products. Nutrient-retention is especially important in pet food manufacturing because many producers add in costly vitamin supplements to their pet foods. MATS meets their demand for a higher quality product while improving cost efficiencies.

We’ve seen a wide variety of foods being developed by customers working with the MATS technology including corn on the cob, eggplant moussaka, mussels, berry cobbler, pasta with meatballs, vegetable cabbage wrap, seafood pasta and chicken with rice and vegetables.

FE: Can you tell us more about Amazon’s venture into food distribution and why 915 Labs technology is a good fit allowing Amazon to do that?

Locatis: Retailers like Amazon and Walmart, both of whom want to ramp up their food offerings for home delivery, are hamstrung by today’s food processing options. Sending foods frozen or refrigerated is costly, both from a shipping standpoint and for packaging, which often weighs much more than the food.

Ambient distribution is clearly the more sustainable solution, but until now, there has been no processing method available that can produce the kind of high quality and variety foods that consumers want. MATS changes all that—it unlocks the future of food.