Controlling food losses through better packaging

Various packaging technologies can help food handlers remain competitive by reducing spoilage and delivering consistent, quality products.

Those involved in food and beverage packaging know well that consumers and brand owners are both demanding less food losses and increased shelf life from products. The modern food industry has developed and expanded because of its ability to deliver a wide variety of high quality food products to consumers on a nationwide and worldwide basis. This feat has been accomplished by building stability into the products through processing, packaging, and additives that enable foods to remain fresh and wholesome throughout the distribution process.  

The terms active packaging and smart packaging refer to packaging systems used with foods, pharmaceuticals, and several other types of products. They help extend shelf life, monitor freshness, display information on quality, improve safety, and improve convenience.

More recently this has been updated to include intelligent functions (sensing, detecting, recording, tracing, communicating and applying scientific logic) in order to extend shelf life, enhance safety, improve quality, provide information and warn about possible issues.

There is a commercial need to allow products to stay fresh on a retailer's shelf for longer. This extension of shelf life is aimed at slowing down the deterioration of the product using a range of processes. Each of the processes is interdependent on packaging to preserve the product in a suspended state.

The principal mechanisms involved in the deterioration of processed foods are:

  1. Microbiological spoilage sometimes accompanied by pathogen or germ development.
  2. Chemical and enzymatic activity causing the breakdown of colour, odour, flavour, and texture changes.
  3. Moisture or other vapour migration which produces changes in texture, water activity and flavour.

Therefore, to enhance shelf life the focus ought to be on:

  • Reducing microbial activity 
  • Increasing the acidity
  • Addition of additives
  • Reducing water activity
  • Modified-atmosphere packaging (Modify the immediate environment) 

Initially extending the shelf life of products was an issue for the supply chain, but it is now a consumer concern as freshness coupled with sustainable packaging has become an important buying factor. 

Consumer demands for convenience have created new innovations in the food product development and packaging industries. The widespread desire for products to use in the microwave oven has added further to the effort. Consumers are demanding more sustainable packaging solutions that also perform shelf life-extensions, whilst brand owners understand the commercial advantages that active packaging technology can deliver to their products. 

In the supply chain, more research and development work is being done on oxygen scavengers, moisture absorbers and barrier films that will enhance the shelf life of products. Consumers want packaging that keeps products clean, ready for eating, with a longer shelf life, product security and value for money. This remains a big ask, but if success is to be achieved, packaging technologists need to rise to these demands.

Active Packaging

There is a range of active packaging techniques which are available; the broad categories are:

  • Absorbers/removers: added to enclosed packaging to assist in removing or decreasing the level of oxygen in the package, also called oxygen scavengers.
  • Release systems: antimicrobial agents incorporated in the packaging used to prevent micro-organism growth on the food.
  • Self-heating/cooling: exothermic chemical reaction to generate heat and an endothermic reaction to create cooling. 
  • Selective permeation: modifying polymer properties to alter the relative permeability of gases.
  • Antimicrobial agents: control or inhibit the growth of non-desirable micro-organisms on the food surface.

Smart Packaging

In conjunction with the developments in packaging materials, which help to extend and protect shelf life, there is also a complementary group of devices which monitor the products in the packs. These include time temperature indicators and leak and gas indicators, which provide an indication to the consumer of the state or freshness of the product.

  • Time temperature indicators: operate by physical, enzymatic or chemical reactions.
  • Leak or Gas Indicators: show the absence or presence of gases.
  • Tracking services: packed goods can be tracked over the delivery and storage processes.
  • Freshness Indicators: attached inside the packaging and are dependent on any inference from temperature history, they signal product quality of the packed food.)

Nanotechnology

One of the fastest growing areas is the application of nanotechnology in packaging materials. As the food market has expanded to a worldwide marketplace, it is requiring a longer shelf life. New materials incorporating nano-particles have been able to reduce and in some cases eliminate the transmission of oxygen, and in addition have blocked the transmission of moisture from the product.

Packaging today not only has to be multi-functional by meeting design requirements, but with the added pressure towards sustainable packaging, it has to be environmentally friendly in the effort to reduce our carbon footprint.

With the daily challenges of preserving product and minimising losses, growers, packers, shippers and retailers of produce now have new packaging options that allow them to dramatically increase shelf life. 

Various packaging technologies can help food handlers remain competitive by reducing spoilage and delivering consistent quality products on every shipment. Innovations in packaging for extending shelf life will be a key driver over the next few years for manufacturers. Enhanced technical knowledge and input by packaging technologists and packaging engineers through improved performance qualities of materials will be required to fuel market growth.

Pierre Pienaar is education director at the Australian Institute of Packaging (AIP).