European citrus fruits production is concentrated in the Mediterranean region. Spain represents nearly 60% of the EU?s total production and Italy around 30%; the remaining 10% comes from mainly Cyprus, Greece and Portugal. Spanish production is concentrated in the regions of Murcia and Valencia. The process of obtaining the desired fruit generates a significant amount of waste, mainly low-quality fruits and those parts with little commercial value. At best this waste matter is used as animal feed, but better ways to manage the huge volume of citrus waste are required.
The LIFECITRUS project aimed to demonstrate at a semi-industrial scale an innovative industrial process for obtaining natural food ingredients from discarded parts of citrus fruits (lemon, orange, grapefruit and tangerine). The final product was a natural gelling ingredient to be used in the food industry as a natural substitute for pectin and which would react in the absence of sugar, unlike usual additives. It is expected to reduce waste by 80% in terms of volume. This new process would be installed in Molina De Segura (Murcia) in a processing plant owned by the project beneficiary that will be enlarged and up-graded to semi-industrial scale. The project also aimed to organise training courses on the operation of the semi-industrial plant, and to assess the suitability of the process for residues of other fruits and vegetables.
LIFECITRUS demonstrated the effectiveness of an innovative industrial process for obtaining a natural gelling ingredient from discarded parts of citrus fruits, and the applicability of the obtained ingredient for the preparation of jams, jellies, juices and other foodstuffs.
The project team concluded that the transformation of citrus residues into a puree to substitute for commercial pectin can be highly profitable. This natural ingredient to replace pectin generates a new line of industrialisation, but the location of the processing plant close to large citrus waste sources is a fundamental factor to minimise transportation costs.
The project partners processed large amounts of citrus peel, from lemon, orange, grapefruit and tangerine, to produce the new gelling ingredient. Throughout the project, 6 556 kg of citrus waste was processed and re-used to manufacture new food products, avoiding non-appropriate management (including). In total, the project team trialled 13 different foodstuffs cooked using the new ingredient to replace commercially-produced pectin. These were compared to comparable foodstuffs made using pectin in the standard way. In addition, the beneficiaries carried out a cost-benefit analysis and a feasibility study. The results from these analyses showed that the products obtained had similar characteristics to those produced by means of the standard process.
The puree obtained from citrus by-products can be used in all types of food without altering their organoleptic properties. Therefore, it offers a wide range of possibilities to any company in the sector seeking to address the increasing demand for natural foods. The project?s market research concluded that a new ingredient with gelling capacity to replace conventional pectin would be of interest to many companies. The cost-benefit and feasibility study showed that obtaining citrus purees from the residues of the citrus industry could be highly profitable. In terms of cash flows, if the investment is financed with a company?s own funds, the implementation of the process would be financed in just 1.66 years.
An intensive campaign disseminated the project know-how to industry operators and fostered the replicability of the process. A total of 92 regional companies processing citrus fruits, jams, jellies and other foodstuffs were contacted, as well as 58 national and international companies. The project partners performed 27 tests with 16 different regional companies, and four tests with national and international companies. In general, the companies showed more interest in using the new ingredient than in its production. One factor is that the new ingredient needs standardisation for its commercial application, so potential users prefer to wait until the product is available on the market rather than to produce it themselves.
Project partner AMC is assessing the industrial scaling-up of the pilot plant to treat citrus waste commercially to make the new ingredient after project end. The main constraint is the high water consumption of the process, which was optimised by the beneficiaries to make it feasible at industrial level. Water consumption in the pilot plant was reduced from 40 litres of water per kg of waste to 15. A simulation of the process at industry scale showed that the LIFECITRUS process was probably only feasible for large companies that generate more than 5 tons per hour of citrus waste.
In addition, thanks to the dissemination actions, environmental awareness has increased. The need to reduce waste and maximise recycling is better known, and more industry operators and citizens now consider agro-industry residues as a valuable resource. More than 5 000 people from the Murcia region accessed project information through contact with companies, training courses, and the project website. Moreover, around 500 people visited the demonstration plant.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Communication Plan (see "Read more" section).