Improved packaging to enhance shelf-life performance

Pierre Pienaar*, Australian Institute of Packaging, 08/01/2013


Pierre Pienaar, Australian Institute of PackagingThose involved in food and beverage packaging are well aware that consumers and brand owners are demanding increased shelf-life from products.

The modern perishable food industry has developed and expanded because of its ability to deliver a wide variety of high-quality products to consumers on a nationwide and worldwide basis.

This 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.

There is a commercial need to allow products to stay fresh on a retailer's shelf for longer. The 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:

  • Microbiological spoilage, sometimes accompanied by pathogen or germ development.
  • Chemical and enzymatic activity causing the breakdown of colour, odour, flavour, and texture changes.
  • 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, or modifying the immediate environment (Modified Atmosphere Packaging).

In addition to focusing on the above items, another format of packaging that can assist with this is active packaging. One of the main purposes of active packaging is 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. Research has indicated that freshness indicators on packaging will become critical to consumer choice over the next few years.

What is more, according to Active and Intelligent Packaging World in a report published last year, active packaging is set to expand at a rate of more than 5 percent a year within the food and drinks market.

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 managers understand the commercial advantages that active packaging technology can deliver to their products.

In supply chains, more 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 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.

New packaging strategies have been developed to address the challenges of extending shelf life in storage and transport. Modified Atmosphere Packaging is a technology that manipulates the atmosphere surrounding the product in order to delay spoilage.

There are different types of modified atmosphere applications. One method injects nitrogen, carbon dioxide and/or oxygen into packs or containers in order to modify the air pocket surrounding the food. This gas mixture or gas-flushed type of system requires that the air surrounding the product be removed and the desired gas mixture then inserted.

The exact concentration and ratio 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. Ethylene Absorption Packaging is a relatively new technology that falls into this category of modified atmosphere packaging methods and is a method that will be closely observed as more is learned about this technique.


Nanotechnology the new buzzword

One of the current buzz words in packaging materials is nanotechnology.

As the food market has expanded to a worldwide marketplace, it is requiring longer shelf-life performance due to transport distances. 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.

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

The various packaging technologies mentioned above can help food handlers remain competitive by reducing spoilage and delivering consistent quality products on every shipment. The speed of uptake will depend somewhat on the pace of the recovery from the global economic crisis, and consumer confidence.

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 the Education Coordinator and former National President of the Australian Institute of Packaging


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