"There would certainly be some questions that I would have around the texture of the bread holding for 60 days," said Brian Strouts, head of experimental baking for the Manhattan, Kan.-based nonprofit American Institute of Baking. "It would not be the answer to all the problems with baked goods. There's a lot of things that can start happening," including bread becoming rancid.
MicroZap is not a commercial bakery and has no plans to package its own bread or operate a plant where bread is treated. For now, its goal is to find a bread manufacturer that wants to implement a pilot program — using a similar metallic device as the testing prototype — in a production line.
A patent is pending on the technology, Stull said, adding that they're in talks with investors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has contacted MicroZap about possibly using the technology for exported fruits and vegetables.
Stull said MicroZap has just completed drawings for an in-home unit, so that consumers could treat bread and other foods themselves. He estimated an in-home unit would cost about $100 more than a regular microwave.
Microwaving bread is not the same as irradiation — a technique that kills food pathogens — as no gamma rays are used. The U.S. government has approved irradiation for a variety of foods — meat, spices, certain imported fruits, the seeds used to grow sprouts. It does not make the food radioactive.
The microwaves used in the university lab are the same frequency as commercial units, but delivered in an array that gets a homogenous signal to the bread, eliminating the hot and cold spots common when heating food in kitchen microwaves.
The technology — an effort funded by $1.5 million from Texas' Emerging Technology Fund — was initially intended to kill bacteria such as MRSA, a contagious bacterial infection that's resistant to many commonly used antibiotics, and salmonella. But researchers discovered it also killed mold spores in bread and sterilized fresh or processed foods without cooking or damaging them.
While bread manufacturers have expressed interest in the technology, there's concern it could push up the price in an industry with already tight margins.
"I think the consumers are going to drive this more than companies," Stull said.
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