The growth of still soft drinks, such as juices and functional waters, presents manufacturers with a problem, as they are more susceptible to spoilage than traditional carbonated drinks. However, their increasing popularity coincides with mounting consumer suspicion of preservatives. The solution has been for soft drinks companies to invest in aseptic, cold-filling bottling equipment, as Annette Farr found out.

Arguably this century's most exciting innovation in soft drinks production is aseptic PET bottling. The technology allows the current trend for more exotic ingredients, such as fruits, berries and herbs, minerals and vitamins to be processed without harming their inherent nutritional qualities, bottled and then marketed as preservative-free. This at a time when consumers are becoming more and more concerned about the use of artificial ingredients, additives and preservatives in their drinks.

The ultra-hygienic aseptic production process eliminates the need for preservatives as bottle sterilisation, product pasteurisation and filling is done in a sealed and sterile environment.

Traditionally, preservatives such as Benzoic Acid (E210) or Sodium Benzoate (E211) have enabled products to have a longer shelf life by preventing the growth of micro-organisms such as yeasts, mould and bacteria.

The need for a preservative is dependent upon the type of product and the processing used. For carbonated drinks, the presence of carbon dioxide prevents mould growth and high levels of acidity and carbonation also help to inhibit the growth of yeasts and lactic acid bacteria

But when it comes to still drinks, 100% pure fruit juices and juice blends, with ingredients that might ferment, preservation is essential to prevent spoilage. The growing popularity of still drinks, such as fruit juices, waters and functional drinks (often referred to as 'sensitive' beverages), has spurred manufacturers to invest in aseptic manufacturing methods.

Britvic Soft Drinks is an example in the UK. The company announced at the beginning of 2007 that it was to invest in a GBP7.5m (US$15.2m) aseptic production line at its Rugby factory which would enable it to bring new juices to market. Chief executive Paul Moody referred to the investment as a "significant step forward for the company in both the short and long term as we look to aggressively drive our leading position in the faster growing stills category".

The line, supplied by Procomac, an Italian company and leader in cold aseptic PET bottling (also used by Pepsi), came on stream in June. It can fill up to 36,000 bottles per hour (bph). Having previously produced mainly carbonated drinks, this is the site's first venture into still soft drinks.

"The development and installation of the new line has been a very complex task, involving many people both internally and externally," says general manager Gordon Sitch. "But everyone is really excited about the investment and the fact that we can see the future of the factory keeping in step with evolving consumer trends."

Two new pure juice products, Robinsons Smooth Juice and Robinsons Fruit Shoot 100% Juice, are the first to be produced aseptically. Robinsons Smooth Juice comes in a 1-litre re-sealable PET bottle, the only major brand to do so in the ambient category.

Similarly in the US, Sunny Delight Beverages reports it has invested in preservative-free production. The German company, Krones AG, a leading global supplier of beverage packing lines, will install the new line in the company's plant in South Brunswick, New Jersey. It is expected to be operational in early 2008.

"Our job is to meet the rising expectations of consumers for fresher tasting and more wholesome products," says senior vice president of manufacturing and technology Ellen Lobst. "This investment will allow us to do that by giving us a state-of-the-art packing line that can produce very high quality, fresh tasting beverages with extended shelf lives and no preservatives. Very few companies in the US have this capability and we are proud to be among the pioneers in this area."

In Europe, Swiss company Rivella has invested in an aseptic cold-filling system supplied by KHS, another German global manufacturer, claiming it to be one of the most modern systems in Europe. Here the aseptic cold filling offers maximum microbiological safety with minimal thermal stress suitable for sensitive beverages such as the company's whey drinks and fruit juices.

Eckes Granini, the leading German juice manufacturer, switched to cold aseptic filling in late 2004 at its Bad Fallingbostel plant. Co-partner Peter Eugen Eckes described the investment as a "step taken towards the future". The 24,000 bph line equipment, also installed by KHS, produces the complete range of Granini and hohes C products for the German retail trade in non-refillable PET instead of glass bottles.

Hermann Naumann, plant manager, maintains that consumers can taste the difference of the gentler product treatment of the aseptic cold-filling method compared to the conventional hot-filling process.

When Cott UK acquired Macaw in August 2005, the world's leading supplier of own-label drinks inherited Macaw's aseptic production facility thus joining the club of aseptic producers. At the time, Andy Murfin, managing director of Cott's UK and Europe Divisions, identified aseptic production as a good way of targeting fast-growing sectors like energy drinks and bottled water.

There are environment and cost savings benefits too with aseptic technology. As drinks are kept at ambient temperatures there is no need for them to be stored and distributed by costly and energy-demanding chilled warehouses and refrigerated trucks. Retailers and consumers benefit from a long shelf life.

Meanwhile, innovation continues with the original aseptic carton pack. Spearheaded by Tetra Pak for long-life juices and milk drinks, the carton's hygienic, light-resistant and airtight properties have proved irreplaceable, especially in Third World countries.

One such development is Tetra Wide packaging material which features a new inner coating that is stronger and more robust, but 30% thinner and requiring fewer polymers. With this development, the company says it will be reducing its global consumption of polymers by 50,000 tonnes per year.