Snack cracker manufacturers make up a large segment of the baked good market and produce large amounts of various types of crackers. Incoming raw ingredients, like flour, baking soda, salt, etc. are mixed together in batches to form dough for each cracker type. The dough is cut to final shape, before it travels by conveyor belt through a very long oven where it is baked. There are many areas throughout the process where analytical testing is necessary to insure both optimal operating conditions and product quality. Near Infrared (NIR), image and wet chemistry analysis are used to ensure product quality.
Incoming raw materials, such as flour, can be measured to insure proper quality and to verify vendor specifications. The mixed dough can be analyzed to insure that individual ingredients were added in proper proportions or that major ingredients were not missed. Finished product can also be analyzed for moisture to verify that the process is operating optimally. Improper moisture content in the cracker could lead to poor taste and possible bacteria growth. If an oil spray is applied to the cracker, the oil content can be measured to insure quality and alert operators if blockages are occurring in the process. A proper analytical testing procedure can help to insure consistent product quality and to save money by reducing re-work and improving cycle time.
Currently, cracker manufacturing companies are either performing little or no analytical testing or are using time consuming methods that do not provide “real time” analysis. Little or no testing is performed on incoming raw materials, and manufacturers tend to rely on the vendor to provide them with the proper ingredients. Many manufactures use only a visual check to ensure cracker quality. This is a recipe for disaster as there is no proof that the vendor is sending the proper material or that it is of a particular quality. Little is also being done at the mixer. Manufacturers trust that all ingredients are added properly based on weight, and hope that the cracker nutrion specifications are met.
Moisture content is analyzed as the product comes out of the oven using a variety of methods. Primary methods to analyze moisture include a 16 hour vacuum oven method or a moisture balance. Both methods use loss on drying to measure moisture content. The drawback to the vacuum oven method is that the testing time is 16 hours, meaning this test will have no impact on real time process control. The moisture balance can analyze a sample in approximately 15 minutes, but it almost 2-3 times less accurate than a vacuum oven.
Oil content can be analyzed through wet chemistry methods, such as acid hydrolysis. These wet chemistry methods are time consuming and often require harmful chemicals.
NIR analysis has long been used in the baking industry to analyze incoming ingedients, intermediates and finished products. At-line NIR analyzers can supply accurate moisture, total sugar, fat, protein and many other properties at any stage of the process in 30 seconds. This information enables more efficient production, more consistent products and higher profits.