A team of engineers at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has developed a way to peel tomatoes using infrared energy. Their work is aimed at reducing costs and eliminating waste at tomato canning plants. Currently, most processors remove tomato peels by using steam heating or jet sprays of heated chemical solutions followed by a water rinse. The problem with these conventional techniques is they consume too much water. This is a big pain point for the canned tomato industry, especially because most of Americas processed tomatoes come from drought-prone California.
The new peeling technique uses infrared lights in tubes placed alongside conveyor belts. One minute of exposure to the light loosens the peel and causes it to crack. After the skin is loosened, the tomato moves to a vacuum chamber and then “pinch rollers” remove the peel.
Agricultural engineers have been experimenting with infrared peeling of fruits and vegetables for decades, but the ARS team’s tests—which spanned five years and 6,000 Roma tomatoes—are the most extensive. This new “dry peeling” infrared technique offers several benefits to tomato processors. It reduces cost because it eliminates most factory wastewater and is more precise, which means the tomatoes won’t go to waste due to overpeeling. Infrared peeling is also a gentler method that doesn’t damage the tomatoes’ fragile skin. The ARS team is seeking a patent for their new peeling process.