For most of us, packaging is an inconvenience, something to rip apart to get at those yummy organic cookies, a layer of frustration between you and your next snack. Robert Sabdo, business development leader for Food and Beverage Packaging at Buffalo, N.Y.-based Multisorb Technologies, says there's a lot more going on in those plastic-wrapped packages than one might think. There's an invisible world of technology: Sabdo's company produces what's called active packaging.
What it is
These packaging systems, either part of the packaging material itself or inserted separately as a packet (Warning: Do not eat!), help protect and preserve perishable products, extending their shelf life. In most cases, active packaging absorbs moisture, oxygen or odor, or a combination of the three. "Just about every natural food product or supplement is affected by one of those three things," Sabdo says. "What happens is a consumer buys it once, doesn't like the way it looks, they're not going to come back and buy it twice."
What it does
Oxidation is perhaps the biggest problem in the battle against time, particularly for natural and organic products, which don't use all of the artificial and chemical tricks of the trade to maintain freshness. Oxygen eventually seeps into just about any package, even vacuum-sealed products.
An active packaging system scavenges the oxygen to delay the spoilage of produce or maintain the freshness of a non-partially hydrogenated cookie. "This gives them a longer shelf life," Sabdo says. "The longer it's on the shelf, the more likely it will be sold."
Active packaging technology is not new. What is new is the idea to aggressively market it to the natural and organic market, which generally enjoys better margins, making it easier to absorb the extra cost of the packaging. "One of the reasons that we're more excited about organics is you're dealing with a product that's a little more of a premium product," Sabdo notes.
Get this on film
Owner Matthew de Bord's company Origami Foods, out of Stockton, Calif., produces a food film that today is mostly used to wrap sushi rolls in colorful and flavorful ways, possibly with an eventual application toward combating nasty food bacteria like E. coli.
The food film—think those hair-thin, postage-sized Listerine strips—was developed in association with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service. Made with all-natural and raw organic ingredients, the films contain as much as 90 percent of the base material, a vegetable or fruit puree. So a strawberry film sheet is mostly strawberry. The company's carrot film sheet is used to wrap sushi sold at Trader Joe's.
"Most people have bought our products for color," de Bord says. "They don't really care about the flavor, which was surprising to me. It adds some color and a little bit of variety for the chefs to garnish the plate or make new things out of them."
In a more unusual application, a food film palatable to honeybees is used to deliver pharmaceuticals to combat colony collapse disorder, according to de Bord. Scientists at the USDA and other researchers are also hoping such films can someday be combined with essential plant oils, such as oregano extract, to destroy E. coli or salmonella.
The idea would be to use these functional food films to protect meat and produce. A New York Times story last year, "Edible Films with Superpowers," reported that researchers believe thin films woven with a thyme derivative that can kill E. coli could line bags of fresh spinach. The same material in powder form might be sprinkled on packages of chicken to stop salmonella. And while that might seem ingenious, "It's a bit of a ways from a marketable product," de Bord says.
Peter Rejcek is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 8/p. 24