The future of packaging

Paula M Kalamaras and Paul T Kraly explore the next generation in ?active? and ?intelligent? packaging, where a high-tech array of sensors and other monitors are revolutionizing food safety

It is a given that nearly every product — whether organically grown, commercially grown or produced — is packaged at some time during its existence. Even placing a freshly picked tomato in a basket or bag and taking it into the house is an act of packaging. This translates into 99.8 per cent of all foods and beverages at one time being encased in some sort of container for the purposes of transporting, handling or storage. The balancing act in keeping foods functional and healthy often lies in the types of packaging in which they are encased.

There are several packaging formats that can give functional foods an advantage in the market place. These packages protect the foods and beverages, maintaining their integrity and freshness while still preserving the fortifications that have been included. Briefly, they fall into three major categories: Active packaging refers to the incorporation of certain additives into packaging films or within packaging containers with the aim of extending product shelf life. This includes additives that are capable of scavenging or absorbing oxygen, carbon dioxide, ethylene moister, and odour and flavour taints. These additives can be antioxidants, antimicrobials or other preservatives.

Controlled atmosphere packaging and modified atmosphere packaging (CAP or MAP) change the shelf life of foods by interacting with the surface of the food and whatever elements change its condition or sensory properties. Controlled packaging is noted for aseptic and retort packaging, as well as modified and controlled-atmosphere packages. Technically, these types of packaging are also considered ?active,? in that they are actively participatory in food and shelf-life preservation; however, for the sake of clarity, we have separated them into a separate category.

The third type of packaging is known as intelligent packaging. These containers provide a way to monitor and relay information regarding the status of the contents, and then verify this information. This includes time temperature indicators, radio frequency identification and transparent electronic packaging, to name a few. This technology has evolved immensely in recent years, from the bar code readers installed for security in food and grocery stores, into smart cards and packages that can actually communicate with consumers.

Active packaging
Organic fruits, or those that are fortified, are shipped in large containers and the ethylene decay that is inherent in all picked foods is delayed by the strategically placed ethylene absorbers. The infusion of antimicrobial agents into plastic packaging containers such as aseptic and retort packages signifies that these additives will enable packagers to provide their packaging without affecting the content within.

One of the most interesting uses of humectants and desiccants is in the realm of pre-washed and pre-cut vegetables and fruits. Gas-permeable films using moisture-control technology are already a staple at food stores. These films serve as a barrier that keeps harmful bacteria out while keeping vitamins and fortified additives in. These barriers with their antimicrobial infusion do not actively interact with the food itself, but provide an integral control of the oxidation and other moisture-control problems that would hasten decay.

Meats and seafood can also be kept fresh for a longer time with the addition of the MAP controllers. Moisture pads, pellets, sachets and a wide range of absorbing and adsorbing materials are added to the packaging with a nitrogen mix pumped in when it is sealed, lengthening the shelf life of the food from a couple of days to more than a week if the package is not breeched. This maintains the food?s vitamin integrity without spoilage.

Retort packaging — also known as a ?flexible can? — is increasing its presence in the marketplace and is being used in a wide range of new applications as consumers realize that these soft packaging alternatives keep food fresher longer. Since the early days when retort packages were solely used for military meals and cat food, the advantages of eliminating several paths to spoilage have made them really desirable as barriers to light, microbes and anaerobic pathogenic activity.

Intelligent packaging
The most impressive and important trend in food packaging in recent years is the varied types of intelligent packaging becoming available. New thermal bar codes can track the quality of food in the cold chain; other freshness indicators and time/temperature indicators include a computer chip or label circuitry that contains information identifying the raw materials in the package and determines if the product has been stored at the proper temperature for the right amount of time — or if any harmful bacteria infiltrated at any time during the processing chain. This smart chip can also communicate pricing information, labelling and packaging information.

These chips will soon be able to communicate with smart refrigerators that hold readers similar to those in stores: The appliances will be able to monitor the chips in the package or carton of milk, determine its freshness level, amount and other information, and communicate this information.

For those who do not have a smart refrigerator, milk cartons from dairy giant Arla Foods are being developed that can monitor the temperature of the package contents and even determine if it has reached its shelf-life limits — and in turn communicate these findings to the user — all through the use of disposable, cheap electronic sensors. Your milk carton will be able to determine if there is enough vitamin D left in the milk itself or if it has spoiled or reached its expiration date. These indicators will be able to follow the milk from cow to carton to home, so the possibility of spoilage, microbes or any other foreign substance can be detected. It provides the ultimate in food safety.

Other interesting developments include nanotechnology within the packaging itself to replicate freshness indicators, and time-temperature indicators that can be read by scanners at stores to assist clerks in removing expired items from shelves. These indicators, while more ?low tech,? can change colour or record information on a barcode that can follow the freshness trail from start to finish, and indicate if any contaminants were introduced into the food chain due to temperature variations.

These innovative types of packaging provide a wealth of opportunities for functional foods. Whether fortified foods or supplements, the right type of packaging will keep them at their peak, eliminating any type of degeneration in the product?s effectiveness and maintaining the highest quality. An intelligent package that can name ingredients and offer other pertinent information is a good fit with the concept of healthy foods. And not too far down the line, the information contained on these types of packages will include nutritional information, recipes, suggestions for use and myriad other data that can interact with the smart refrigerators already developed.

There is no doubt packaging is on the verge of great innovations, and it will be interesting to watch them work in concert with functional foods in the near future.

Paula M Kalamaras and Paul T Kraly are the authors of Active, Controlled and Intelligent Packaging for Foods and Beverages (Business Communications Company Report, Norwalk, Connecticut). Respond: [email protected]

Latest formats and innovations

Valio, Finland?s leading dairy company, is packaging three of its functional dairy products in a new line of carton shot packaging by Tetra Pak.

The world?s first single-dose package to combine carton and plastic, the major part of the Tetra Top Micro carton bottle body is fibre-based material, while the upper quarter is low-density polyethylene with a built-in tamper-evident seal. The reclosable screw cap lid is high-density polyethylene. Designed for chilled distribution, the shelf life is similar to that of other extended shelf-life packaging.?

Valio offers three shot-size product lines: Evolus, Gefilus and Benecol. Each is made with fermented skim milk.?

  • Evolus with a bioactive milk protein tripeptide for controlling blood pressure;?
  • Gefilus with the probiotic LGG; and
  • Benecol single dose with sitostanol esters for lowering cholesterol.

Aseptic vs cans
Tetra Pak positions its shelf-stable aseptic packaging as a ?fresh? alternative to cans in the meal replacement category.

The aseptic and multi-layered technology protects the integrity of food, which is flash pasteurized and then filled into sterilized packaging and sealed. The result is food that stays safe for months without preservatives or refrigeration.

Metallic and vitamin off-flavours in a meal replacement beverage are more pronounced when packed in a can than in aseptic packages, according to results from a 2004 study the company sponsored.?In the study, identical formulations were packaged two ways: retorted in lacquer-lined steel cans and aseptically processed into Tetra Prisma Aseptic carton packs.?The beverages were compared in a blind taste test.?

Other recent product launches include:

  • EAS? Body-for-LIFE high-protein, 200-calorie beverage;
  • Nestle?s Carnation Instant Breakfast and a children?s nutrition version, the Carnation Instant Breakfast Junior; and
  • Pria Complete Nutrition shake by PowerBar.

—Amy Hobbs, marketing manager, Tetra Pak Global Nutritionals

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