Experts use new technology to improve herb quality
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VietNamNet Bridge – Technicians from the State-run Academy of Science and Technology have designed a production line to improve the productivity and quality of herbs, oils, spices and fruit used medicinally and to flavour or colour food - or as dried food products.

The plant products targeted at present include ginger, crocus, cinnamon, cedar, star aniseed, plum, litchi and cassava.

Dr Dang Xuan Hao, who is in charge of the work, said most herbs had to be quickly harvested and processed or their quality declined.

He said that in Viet Nam, people often used fresh herbs and spices dried under the sun. If the weather conditions were not perfect, this could lower hygiene and quality and keep production down.

A three-year study by scientists from the academy backed with VND3.2 billion (US$60,000) State money, has designed a production line consisting of equipment for peeling root plants such as ginger and crocus, and hot-water cleaning equipment that removes any bacteria.

There is also a cutting machine that cuts fleshy products into 5-mm slices and a solar-panel heating system to thoroughly dry herbs, even in wet weather. This prevents any likelihood of mould appearing that can quickly spoil a product.

However, over heating can destroy useful constituents in the plant products, so a heat monitoring system has been installed.

Water accounts for 80 per cent of the weight of fresh crocus, but reduces to 6-7 per cent after the heating process. The finished product is often a powder used for stomach ailments or to add yellow colouring to food.

The Essential Oils and Aroma Joint Stock Company, which comes under the Academy of Science and Technology, first tested the production line in 2009 to produce crocus powder and crocus oil.

The operation proved effective in saving labour costs, time and improving product quality, Hao said.

For example, on average, a worker can peel 10kg of crocus a day, but the peeling equipment can handle 150kg an hour.

Similarly, the cleaning equipment can handle 500kg of crocus an hour, five times faster than that done by hands.

And to dry out about one tonne of crocus under the traditional system, dozens of workers need about three days and about 300sq.m of space, whereas, using the production line system, it takes two workers a total of about two hours to do a similar job.

Hao said the production line could produce one tonne of crocus powder from about 13 kilos of fresh crocus each day.

Last year, a kilo of crocus powder was sold for VND320,000 ($15.20) compared to VND7,000-8,000 ($0.30) for fresh product, 13 kilos of fresh crocus produced one kilo of powder.

To produce essential oils for medicines and perfumes, ethyl alcohol is used to remove it from the fruit, leaves or roots

Vice president of the Viet Nam Union of Science and Technology Associations Tran Viet Hung said the pilot scheme was one of the few practical studies in Viet Nam involving the processing of spices and essential oils.

"The production line can benefit domestic producers because it is highly practical and cheaper than similar foreign technology," he said.

VietNamNet/Viet Nam News