Those involved in food packaging know only too well that both consumers and brand owners are demanding 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, according to Pierre Pienaar, national president of the Australian Institute of Packaging.
This feat had been accomplished by building stability into the products through processing, packaging and additives that enabled foods to remain fresh and wholesome throughout the distribution process.
“There is a commercial need to allow products to stay fresh on a retailer's shelf for longer,” Mr Pienaar said.
“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.”
Mr Pienaar said three principal mechanisms were involved in the deterioration of processed foods:
- microbiological spoilage sometimes accompanied by pathogen or germ development
- chemical and enzymatic activity causing the breakdown of colour, odour, flavour, and texture changes and
- moisture or other vapour migration producing changes in texture, water activity and flavour.
To enhance shelf-life, the focus ought to be on reducing microbial activity and increasing the acidity as well as the addition of additives and reduction of water activity, and finally modifying the immediate environment.
In addition to focusing on these issues, active packaging could be of great benefit, as one of its main purposes was to extend the shelf-life of products.
“Initially this was a supply-chain issue but it is now a consumer concern, as freshness coupled with sustainable packaging has become an important buying factor. Recent research has indicated that freshness indicators on packaging will become critical to consumer choice over the next few years,” Mr Pienaar said.
“Furthermore, according to Active and Intelligent Packaging World, active packaging is set to expand at more than 5pc each a year within the food and drinks market that will be worth $5.3 billion by 2015, of which the vast majority will comprise active packaging.”
Microwave focus on convenience
Consumer demands for convenience had created new innovations in the food product development and packaging industries and the widespread desire for products to use in the microwave had added to that effort, Mr Pienaar said.
“Consumers are demanding more sustainable packaging solutions that also perform shelf-life extensions, while brand owners understand the commercial advantages that active packaging technology can deliver to their products.”
In supply chains, more work was being done on oxygen scavengers, moisture absorbers and barrier films that would enhance the shelf-life of products like fresh meat.
“Consumers want packaging that keeps products clean, ready for eating, with longer shelf-life, product security and value-for-money. This remains a big ask, but packaging technologists need to rise to these demands,” Mr Pienaar said.
New packaging strategies had been developed to address the challenges of extending shelf-life in storage and transport, including technology that attempted to manipulate the atmosphere surrounding the produce in order to delay spoilage.
There were different types of Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP). One method injects nitrogen, carbon dioxide and/or oxygen into packs or containers in order to modify the air surrounding the food. This gas mixture or gas-flushed system requires that the air surrounding the product be removed and the desired gas mixture then inserted.
The exact concentration of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen used is dependent on the type of food or produce stored or being transported. The mixture is dependent on the packaging material, product and storage temperature. The gas must be inserted into an airtight enclosure.
An alternate and less expensive method incorporates additives directly into plastic films used for covering pallets or lining boxes of produce – a relatively new technology that would be closely observed as more is learned about this technique, Mr Pienaar said.
Nano-technology new frontier
One of the fastest growing areas in the packaging industry was without doubt 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,” he said.
“With the daily challenges of preserving product and minimising losses, producers, packers, shippers and retailers of fresh foods now have new packaging options that allow them to dramatically increase shelf-life.
Various packaging technologies could help food handlers remain competitive by reducing spoilage and delivering consistent quality products on every shipment, Mr Pienaar said.
The speed of uptake of packaging innovation would depend, however, on the pace of the national economic recovery, he said.
“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 that market growth.”