How a product is stored and displayed is no longer seen as an insignificant step in the development of a brand name. It is increasingly becoming an indispensable part of the actual product itself. Shane Starling investigates
In the rush to individuate functional foods, packaging has become an increasingly important tool. Packaging is often the first means to signify ?healthfulness? to the neutral consumer. This may be done via on-pack imagery and labelling, the materials used to manufacture the package, and the shape and style of the pack.
Consumers of functional foods and beverages often make impulse purchases of new functional products. And convenience and package design are increasingly important factors to be considered. For this reason, more traditional materials such as glass are falling from favour.
?Despite the unique shape and artistic design, consumers increasingly find glass bottles inconvenient for practical purposes,? says research company Frost & Sullivan in a report on the US functional beverages market. ?Cans and Tetra Paks are becoming more prevalent in the market, as well as the design of the bottle opening with the sport cap. Refrigerated and shelf-stored beverages are also a consideration on product purchase decisions, as consumers may not actually wish to consume the drink immediately.?
In particular, delivering ingredients at the point of consumption is seen as a means to overcome many of the logistical problems, such as taste and longevity, that occur when combining functional ingredients with foods and beverages during manufacture.
Taste masking has often been required to provide solutions to functional ingredients with taste issues, but ingredients used to mask taste can themselves raise shelf-life issues. And increasingly wary, often obsessive label-reading consumers are less tolerant of the presence of these ingredients than they might have been in the past.
The inclusion of functional ingredients such as pre- and probiotics have also meant shortened shelf lives for products like Yakult and Actimel. The functionality of other ingredients, while not degrading the product, may become less than efficacious in a short period of time.
It is for this reason that a delivery system developed by Swedish innovator BioGaia is getting so much attention. BioGaia is a probiotic ingredients specialist, which became frustrated by the limitations of traditional ways of delivering its reuteri probiotic bacteria into products. To address these problems the company set up two subsidiaries — Tripak to develop packaging ideas and Twopac to manufacture them.
This project has already led to the launch of the LifeTop straw, which, by keeping beverages and selected ingredients separated until the point of consumption, delivers shelf-life benefits. The unique system has obvious marketing merit and is already being employed with beverages in the UK, Spain, China and Scandinavia.
While the technologies were developed by BioGaia with the intention of delivering its patented bacteria, the company has realised that LifeTop has potential beyond probiotics.
?Our main business is delivering concepts based on probiotics,? says Nigel Titford, BioGaia?s marketing and sales director. ?Out of that we realised in order to get bacteria into beverages, different techniques needed to be employed. These bugs are alive and they are very sensitive and in the drink environment it really shortens their shelf life. As an ingredient, they are sleeping in a freeze-dried powder. As soon as they get into the drink they wake up and start eating and multiplying. It doesn?t do anything to the taste of the drink but it means the health benefit of the product is compromised.?
Fresh probiotics typically last about a month. BioGaia is able to keep its bacteria useful for more than a year, without refrigeration. ?What we are trying to do is keep the ingredients away from the drink until the last minute,? Titford says.
?Just before you drink it, you activate the health benefit by releasing the probiotic or other ingredient into the drink. The probiotic is in oil in the straw, and, as you drink, it moves up the straw into your mouth. We have tested it to make sure the right amount goes into the drink as the product is drunk. The straw is suited to the bacteria because the amount of powder needed to supply a dose is small. Other ingredients require a higher volume of powder and are not suited to the straw.?
A LifeTop cap with a push button mechanism to release active ingredients is set for its first commercial release in a French water product this fall. The ingredients in this case will be vitamins and minerals, and more products are on the way. ?We are prototyping a series of different health drinks,? explains Titford. ?In each cap will be a different group of ingredients including probiotics. We can mix in minerals and vitamins and they will be coloured so that when the ingredients are released into the drink there will be a colour that is shaken throughout to tint the drink. The consumer can see the health benefit going into the drink because of the dispersion of colour. They get an emotional involvement when they release the health benefit. At the moment it is being applied to bottled water but the idea could be used in many other applications.
?With the cap the idea of activation is really strong because you have to push a button to start the whole thing. It?s a technical solution but it is something that has great marketing potential. The health and wellness area is a bit crowded so we are moving in with new applications like the straw and the cap.?
Gregor Lundfall, Tripak LifeTop delivery systems marketing director, adds: ?The LifeTop straw has traditionally been used in medical applications, but it is also on the market now in drinking yoghurts and this is happening more and more. We are looking at other nutraceuticals that require protection from the environment — from UV radiation, oxygen and moisture.?
Broadcasting the benefits
Major international packager Tetra Pak is also proactive in this area and has licensing agreements with BioGaia in some markets. Far from being a silent partner, Tetra Pak is constantly responding to market trends and letting both its old and new customers know of its packaging visions.
?We take a look at a lot of the ingredients that are being introduced and try to see how they function in aseptic processing. We do that frequently,? says Chicago-based Jacqueline Paul, global director of nutritionals at the Swiss multinational. ?The goal is to increase shelf life, keep the food safe and retain the nutritional aspects. If you can do that and keep the flavour, then you are going to get a more successful product.?
Tetra Pak even launched a television, print and supermarket poster campaign in the UK last year to convey the benefits of its packaging solutions direct to consumers. ?This is the right time for us to engage directly with the consumer,? says Tetra Pak UK?s commercial director Malcolm Waugh. ?Our aim is to try to communicate the benefits of cartons to consumers and allow them to make an informed choice when they?re in the supermarket. We have a really strong story to tell about the benefits of cartons. By communicating these benefits it will also assist our customers in their business.?
Tetra Pak has launched another initiative with German natural foods and beverages developer Dohler called Fast Break, which goes well beyond mere packaging solutions. Fast Break is a range of six convenient, healthy beverages with functional ingredients such as probiotics, yoghurt, fibre and soy designed to be templates for beverage manufacturers to add to their own ranges.
?Each formulation can be adapted to fit both chilled and ambient distribution,? the company says. The templates can be altered and customised to each customer?s particular needs. ?Our goal is to understand the marketplace, in order to successfully pinpoint the kinds of value-added beverages today?s health-minded consumers want,? the company says. Tetra Pak is also working with DSM on solutions to deliver its omega-3 ingredients.
One company that has already delivered innovative solutions in the omega-3 area is California-based Coromega. One of the packaging success stories in the functional foods area has been the daily dose bottle made famous by Yakult. In 50 years, Yakult remains largely unchanged — it is still sold in packages of seven — one little bottle for each day of the week. Coromega is employing a similar principle with its pouch or sachet delivery system for its omega-3 product. In foods, pouches or sachets have traditionally been associated with condiments, where the contents are squeezed out onto the food or onto a plate. Consumers of Coromega?s product squeeze the orange-flavoured ?creamy, pudding-like emulsion? directly into their mouths.
The company claims to have overcome any fishy aftertaste issues. ?It tastes like orange sherbet or an orange pop icicle,? says CEO Frank Morley. ?The idea came out of Europe. There is a similar product in Scandinavian countries in a tube. We felt at that time that a tube as a dietary supplement or a functional food was completely foreign to the US market. It came to our attention that another omega-3 product was being made in Italy, so that idea was adopted. A 2.5g dose was adequate intake for a daily dose consumption, which is 650mg omega-3. The pouch protects the fish oil from air, light and heat; these are the most damaging elements to fish oil.?
In another development, Scottish sausage skin maker Devro and Irish biotech firm Alltracel have teamed up to create a food wrapping product to lower cholesterol. The partnership will develop the cholesterol product using Alltracel?s micro-dispersed oxidised cellulose (m.doc) powder, which has been shown to lower cholesterol in animal studies. Clinical studies are in the pipeline. Collagen films used in sausage skins are being tested to create a wrapper for the m.doc powder; the wrapper is already used in anti-bleeding products made by Alltracel. The cellulose material is being adapted to produce a cholesterol-absorbent food wrapping.
Other casings innovations are taking place at Oregon State University?s Department of Food Science and Technology. Researchers there have created an anti-microbial food wrap that looks like regular clear film, but is thin enough to have no effect on the texture of the food it covers.
?You can use it as a film to wrap foods or you can use it as a spray or dip to coat foods,? says Yanyun Zhao, a food technologist and specialist in value-added products. ?And you can enrich the film or coating with extra nutrients, such as vitamin E and calcium, to boost the nutritional value of the food.?