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FOOD PACKAGING: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow!
Dr. Pragya Khanna1/25/2020 10:57:37 PM
Most of us would agree that when at the grocery store, a product's packaging makes all the difference between putting it in the cart or placing it back on the shelf. In today's times, packaging is really important, and not just because it keeps the food safe, it can also subtly affect our purchasing decisions.
For ages, humans stored their food in containers they found in natural surroundings like coconut shells, dried gourds, hollow logs, baskets, wrapped up in leaves and pottery. By the first century BC, the Chinese were known to wrap their food with treated tree bark and other forerunners of paper. Food packaging forms the core of the present food industry and today very few foods are sold unpackaged. The packaging is as important as the contents themselves. Today, food packaging markets the product, prolongs its shelf life, and facilitates long-distance transportation besides adding many additional benefits. Packaging may inform the consumer of all the properties of the product. It is almost the "language" of the product. With the development of modern age, decreasing family size and increase in the number of single households, the production of especially portioned packaging has increased. Packaged goods are preferred because people have limited time to eat, drink and shop in the fast cadence of today and such goods have usage and transport ease.
However, the art and science of food packaging has seen a long history of evolution. Nowadays, food packaging comes embedded with new interesting features like NFC chips or printed QR codes, Smart Labels that can be scanned using a smartphone to provide more information about the product besides, it can launch exclusive content, update your Facebook status, download coupons, promotions and music and invite your friends to join you.. Rightly termed 'Smart packaging', it also tracks several parameters like pH, temperature, fermentation to ensure freshness, flavour, quality, and maintain compliance with health standards. For example, Maggi Healthy Soups by Nestlé uses their patented 'granulation-based technology' to retain the freshness of key ingredients. In another fascinating example, technology-enabled packaging can be used to add cosmetic appeal too. For instance, during the FIFA 2018 World Cup in Russia, Budweiser provided beer cups with embedded LED lights. The lights were activated by noise. The more one cheered for their team, the more lights glowed.
Due to the large variety of food products, a great deal of packaging materials, container types, packaging systems, and techniques exist. The choice and precision of a package depend on the nature of the food, the desired shelf life of the product, the storage conditions, and the cost. It is a challenging task and requires in-depth knowledge of the food product and its deterioration mechanisms, transportation hazards, market and distribution requirements, and, finally, the properties and characteristics of all available packaging materials, machines, and systems.
Paper, and some combinations of paper-based packaging material, represents the most economical form of packaging. Paperboard packaging, though economical, provides absolutely no oxygen or moisture protection for the product, but it does provide rigidity, mechanical support, and light barrier properties. Paperboard is also used for the manufacture of composite cans and aseptic cartons, which consist of combinations of thin layers of aluminium foil, paperboard, plastic, adhesive, and coatings.
Glass is chemically inert, it provides nearly absolute protection from oxygen, moisture, microorganisms, rodents, and insects, and, if colored properly, can filter out harmful UV light. However, glass has two negative properties: its heavy weight and fragility. Certain disadvantages of glass as packing material has reduced its desirability like it being a heavy packaging material than others, fear of breakage and subsequent loss of product, hermetic seal that is more easily compromised, the increased possibility of broken glass contaminating the finished product, color changes of the product due to exposure of light.
Recently, the development of high-temperature resistant plastics led to the partial replacement of glass containers for jelly, ketchup, and spaghetti sauces. As plastic technology advances, other products usually packaged in glass containers will also be packed in plastic.
The use of metal containers has many advantages: they can be sealed hermetically; they provide excellent protection from gases, moisture, microorganisms, rodents, and insects; they are stackable, tamper-proof, and relatively inexpensive; and, in general, they can be thermally processed. Certain disadvantages of its usage include the compromise on the quality of food because of metal being a corrosive material, the food content cannot be seen after packaging, and metal can react with the food material and hence contaminate it.
Plastics are long-chain polymers that can be melted, formed into a desired shape, and solidified during cooling. The general advantages of using plastic materials in food packaging include consumer acceptance and preference, excellent safety characteristics (non-fragility), less weight than other materials, good moisture and gas barrier properties, good puncture resistance, low heat conductivity, good sealant properties, recyclability, and microwavability. On the other hand, potential disadvantages include flavor scalping and migration issues. ('Flavor scalping' refers to absorption of the product's flavor compounds by the packaging material, and, conversely, 'migration' is the transfer of compounds from the package to the product).
Apart from the above, there are some improvisations that are used for more applicability like when two or more plastic films are combined together, either with an adhesive or by co-extrusion, they form a laminate. The purpose of laminating materials is to combine the best properties of each film into a single packaging structure. The combination of different films into a laminate can provide a stronger seal, better mechanical properties, machinability, barrier properties for moisture, gas, odor, and light, graphics quality, and, in general, improved characteristics and appearance at a relatively low cost.
Vacuum metallization is the deposition of a thin metal layer on a polymeric material under vacuum. Metallized films are not as susceptible to flex-cracking or pin-holing, which gives them a distinct advantage over foil-laminated films. The most common metallized film is oriented polypropylene, which is used widely by the snacks industry, particularly for pretzels and potato chips. A major area of packaging development is in the microwavable products category. Consumer demands for convenient foods that need minimum time for preparation are satisfied by the use of plastics and their combination with other packaging materials that allow the product to be rapidly heated in a microwave oven. As a result, many shelf-stable, refrigerated, and frozen microwavable products are available in markets.
The market for fresh-cut and minimally processed produce has grown tremendously over the past ten to fifteen years, and this is the result of the development and availability of plastic materials, packaging systems, and technologies, such as modified atmosphere packaging, that extend the shelf life of these products. Active packaging is a special type of modified atmosphere packaging. It involves the addition of an active substance inside the package that will cause a certain modification during storage. The substances used may be oxygen absorbents, moisture absorbents/regulators, antimicrobial agents, or other compounds with specific properties.
While packaging does improve safety, offer convenience and reduce theft, it also comes with a number of disadvantages. Packaging can be bulky, expensive and environmentally damaging over the course of its life cycle. While packaging can do a lot to get customer attention, and may even add value to a product, it also adds to the cost of production and the eventual retail price.
It is rightly pointed out that "If you care about what you eat, you should care about what it comes in". We're just beginning to understand some of the short- and long-term risks associated with the chemicals in packaging: obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease and other health issues. Some consumer are advocating phasing out some of the riskier substances that come into contact with our food. The question is: what replaces these materials?
Plastic products labeled with the terms "greenware" or "bio-based" are less harmful, but aren't completely safe. Even bioplastics, products derived from plants, come with their own environmental concerns. Some of them will still release harmful greenhouse gases when they end up in a landfill and many simply can't be recycled.
The brainwork of designers, engineers, biologists, investors, and recyclers could be used to develop packaging that falls within the mandates of what's known as the circular economy and also help us achieve a better environment.
Until systems and people are in sync, a great deal of compostable packaging will end up in landfills. Let's look forward to a solution to this Catch-22 situation. However, it is difficult to imagine a food market without convenience of packaging. Hence, we have to look towards better alternatives of food packaging that provide expediency without compromising on health and environment.
"Packaging can be theater, it can create a story" - Steve Jobs
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