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Vegetable and Potato Processing Research center VEG-i-TEC opens its doors

Vegetable and Potato Processing Research center VEG-i-TEC opens its doors

A lot of water, energy and nutrition is lost during the processing of vegetables and potatoes. Scientists from Ghent University, together with partners Flanders' FOOD, Howest, VITO, and Vlakwa, are therefore reviewing the processing process from A to Z in the VEG-i-TEC research center.

Flemish Minister of Economy, Innovation and Nutrition Hilde Crevits opened the Ghent University building on Campus Kortrijk.

VEG-i-TEC is a 'living lab' of Ghent University that focuses on the vegetable and potato processing industry. Whether or not at the request of companies, the research center is looking for innovations that make the sector more sustainable and circular.

Hilde Crevits, Flemish Minister of Economy, Innovation and Nutrition:
"West Flanders has a successful food industry. By focusing on innovation and research, we can perpetuate this leading position. With the new VEG-i-TEC research building, our region has an additional innovation pearl, which will not only ensure more sustainable applications in our Flemish SMEs, but will also attract knowledge and talent to our region."

"Together with Flanders, we are therefore proud to invest 3 million euros in this through European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) resources."
Sustainable, healthy and tasty

First of all, the bad news: fries are 'threatened with extinction'. It has everything to do with water scarcity. The potato varieties most commonly grown there are not used to the dry seasons that they have experienced in recent years.

The potatoes are getting smaller while they just want nice long fries.

Researchers from Ghent University, together with partners Flanders' FOOD, Howest, VITO and Vlakwa, are looking for solutions by studying other varieties and processing processes.

This research is carried out at VEG-i-TEC, the new research center of Ghent University, located on its campus in Kortrijk.

Imca Sampers, Professor and Project leader at Ghent University:
"It is our mission to make the food industry sustainable and circular. But we go further: we also look at how this can be healthy and tasty."

"We take a close look at the entire chain, from raw material to end product, which makes VEG-i-TEC unique. We used to not do that, and then the switch from a controlled lab setting to the factory floor - with many unpredictable parameters - proved too big to really use our solutions."

"By now looking at every step in the process, we are making the translation to the industry easier."
It is clear that companies appreciate the new approach: VEG-i-TEC has already received more than fifty research questions.

Water management high on the wish list

Within VEG-i-TEC a lot of attention will be paid in the coming period to the increasing water scarcity. The one that threatens not only the fries, it is one of the biggest challenges of the entire West Flemish and European food industry. Water management is therefore high on the wish list of the sector. It should come as no surprise that an entire (waste) water treatment hall has been set up in the VEG-i-TEC building.

Imca Sampers:
"Companies now purify their wastewater and then largely discharge it, only part of it is reused. How can this be done better and above all: how can this be done in a safe way?"

"Companies want to know from us which parameters, such as possible pathogens, they must monitor to guarantee the water quality, how they keep pesticides out of the wastewater."

"The advantage of having our own research center is that we now also have all kinds of worst-case solutions for our answers try out scenarios. We used to do tests in companies ourselves and of course, we couldn't go that far there."
Less waste

Not only is a lot of water lost during the production processes of vegetables and potatoes, but many of the vegetables themselves also end up in the waste bin. However, there is also potential there: potato chips that are too small to make French fries are packed with proteins, colorants can be obtained from the pulp from the fruit industry. This gives the by-products a second life as food, but also in cosmetics, crop protection, or textiles.

Less plastic

Plastic is another pain point within the food industry: the packaging materials. To make the mountain of plastic smaller, the sector wants to focus more on recyclable or bio-based materials with a lower environmental impact. But the quality and safety of our food must of course not be endangered. That is why VEG-i-TEC is looking for alternatives to classic plastics.

Imca Sampers:
"We look for the right combination of packaging, foodstuffs, and packaging technology and test it in practice. In this way, we see what can go wrong in the process and we can make adjustments where necessary."

"To ensure quality, we – together with machine builders – make our own packaging machines that are easy to clean and that focus on recyclable, bio-based, or reusable packaging."
VEG-i-TEC was realized thanks to the support of, among others, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF Flanders), the Flemish Hermes Fund, the provinces of West Flanders and East Flanders, the Interreg program FWVL (France, Wallonia, Flanders), Flanders' FOOD, House of Food, Ghent University, Belgapom, and Cargill.