Report from MATS Boot Camp: Food Experts Say New Microwave Processing Leads to Better Taste & Could Improve Food Safety

Phil McGrath, a disruptive marketer who builds new food brands, was in a New Zealand food lab working on a new premium food product when his team ran into what he calls “the standard over-cooking problems with retort.” 

“We just weren’t getting the results we wanted,” said McGrath, who developed one of the first baby foods in a pouch, Rafferty’s Garden Baby Food. “I asked ‘Why can’t we microwave it on the inside at the same time it’s heated from the outside?’ I was told it wasn’t possible.”

Undeterred, McGrath jumped online and found it was possible, with 915 Labs microwave assisted thermal sterilization (MATS) system — and within a few weeks he was in the United States, joining a few dozen food company and co-packer executives and culinary experts from around the world at the November MATS Boot Camp, 915 Labs’ five-day seminar on its microwave sterilization and pasteurization technologies. 

The course, hosted by Washington State University in Pullman, includes a primer on microwave technology and the science behind MATS and the Microwave Assisted Pasteurization System, (MAPS), as well as instruction on system operations and associated laboratory processes. 

Mid-week, the participants break into teams and plan dishes for MATS processing. After grocery shopping for fresh produce and other ingredients, they head back to the kitchen to begin cooking.

“Recipe development for commercial products usually takes weeks, if not months or years,” said Matt Raider, COO of 915 Labs. “But for MATS boot camp purposes, we spend just hours.”

At the November boot camp, teams prepared a variety of dishes, including bean and cheese enchiladas, Thai red curry with duck, seafood pasta and corn on the cob. Each was placed in a 10.5-ounce tray and processed in the pilot MATS system — making the dish commercially sterile and shelf-stable — and then nicely plated for taste testing.

“The results of the first run, even without optimization, were phenomenal,” said Raider. “As soon the Indian dish was opened, there was an immediate aroma of spices. Each of the distinct spices stood out.”

McGrath and teammate Beverly Swango, Director of Business Development at the co-packer Truitt Bros., prepared beef stroganoff, Italian white beans with spinach and chicken, and chicken with herbed rice and ancient grains. 

Beverly Swango, Director of Business Development, Truitt Bros.

“The taste and texture was fantastic,” said McGrath of the chicken and rice dish. “Fresh and lemony.”

Swango, a registered dietician who has worked for private companies, NASA and the U.S. Navy, attended the MATS Boot Camp to learn more about the opportunities available through MATS. With 25 years of experience designing food and systems for babies, pets, astronauts and the military, she was well-aware of the work of Juming Tang, Ph.D. — who led the development of MATS — and was anxious to see what the new technology could do.

“I’ve done a lot of experimenting with retort,” she said. 

With the proper development and optimization, Swango said she believes MATS-processed dishes could be significantly better than retort. She was even more excited about the possibilities MAPS offers for pasteurizing fresh-plated, cafeteria-style foods.

“MAPS will allow for better raw ingredients to be used and an extended refrigerated shelf life [for pasteurized products],” she said. “It fits with what consumers want today.”

She also sees opportunities for MAPS to be used as a food safety intervention, or “kill step,” to improve the safety of batch ingredients served by restaurants, cafeterias and commissaries.

“Food safety is a risk in freshly prepared refrigerated foods because there is typically no intervention step performed to ensure the food is safe,” said Raider. 

On the final day of the fall boot camp, the teams went back to the grocery store and selected a frozen entrée that most closely matched a dish they had created and held another taste testing. The verdict? 

“We’ll definitely be using MATS for our product,” said McGrath, who was impressed with MATS. “It improves on a lot of aspects of retort and I’m very excited about its impact on nutrition. MATS is really going to open up the market for improved shelf-stable foods.

“The boot camp was a great opportunity to get in and play with the technology,” McGrath said. “To do that in a sharing environment with other food experts was an amazing benefit.”

“It was a good experience for me,” agreed Swango. “The camp brings the right people together to work through the process.”

Spots for the next MATS Boot Camp, scheduled for March 15-19, 2016, are filling up quick. Contact kpetersen@915labs.com or call 855-915-MATS for more information.