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White packages in a fridge

These days, nearly as much research and development goes into how we package our food as goes into the food itself. Innovations and high-tech solutions mean that the cartons, films and bottles ensure that the food is kept fresh and safe, helping food production to become more efficient and safe.

In der amerikanischen Stadt Austin/Texas gibt es einen Supermarkt, in den man nicht mit leeren Händen kommen sollte: Mitgebrachte Stoffbeutel sind hier die richtige Ausrüstung für den Wocheneinkauf – wer keine dabei hat, muss sich kompostierbare Behältnisse kaufen, um das vorwiegend regionale Obst und Gemüse mit nach Hause zu nehmen. In diesem Geschäft, dem ersten so genannten Precycling-Supermarkt der Vereinigten Staaten, gibt es nämlich keinerlei Verpackungen.

1.3 billion

The number of metric tons of food production – around one-third of the total – lost or wasted every year worldwide.

95–115kg

The amount of edible food per person that is lost or wasted each year in industrialized countries.

Freshness is imperative

The demands made of packaging are high. Guaranteeing freshness and hygiene is a particular challenge, as foods must often cover great distances when travelling from their place of origin to supermarket shelves. Further time passes before they find their way into a shopping basket, and then again before they ultimately end up on the dining room table. Highly developed technology ensures packaging can keep products impeccably fresh and hygienic. A quick glance in the refrigerated section shows the complexity of what is involved – the packaging for cheese and sausages, for example, is made of a wide range of plastics. The differing characteristics of these composite materials are combined to ensure the packaging is ideally suited to the food. The base of the packaging, for example, can be produced to have different characteristics than the lid or wrapping film.

Wellded food on a shelf
Composite materials help to keep food fresh.

Hard-wearing composites made of various materials are also well suited for use in what is known as Modified Atmosphere Packaging or MAP. With this technology, the air surrounding an edible product is replaced with a protective atmosphere specially tailored to the food. One example is a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide. These slow-reacting gases replace oxygen, and slow the growth of germs, all without using any preservatives. To ensure the solution works properly, the packaging material must form an effective gas barrier. Otherwise, the valuable protective atmosphere would quickly be lost.

In Japan wird die Entwicklung ausgeklügelter Verpackungssysteme zusätzlich durch regionale Essensvorlieben angetrieben: Hier stehen häufig Fisch und Meeresfrüchte auf dem Speiseplan – Lebensmittel, bei denen es besonders darauf ankommt, sie frisch zu halten und vor frühzeitigem Verderben zu schützen. Zum Beispiel genießen in Japan Verpackungen einen hohen Stellenwert, in denen kleine Kissen enthalten sind. Diese so genannten „Sachets“ sind mit Stoffen gefüllt, die Feuchtigkeit binden: zum Beispiel mit Kieselalgen-Gel oder Stärkepolymeren. „Die Sachets sind für japanische Verbraucher ein Hinweis, dass das Produkt besonders gut geschützt wird“, erklärt Sven Sängerlaub vom Fraunhofer-Institut für Verfahrenstechnik und Verpackung (IVV). Viele Europäer hingegen sind skeptisch gegenüber den auffälligen Verpackungselementen. In Japan reagieren Verbraucher stattdessen kritisch auf Verpackungen, die von außen nicht mehr vollständig intakt erscheinen: Selbst unbedenkliche Knicke oder Falten in der Verpackung können dann schon dazu führen, dass frische Lebensmittel im Supermarkt liegen bleiben.

How can consumers accurately assess the condition of products? Uncertainty in this area often leads to waste: “Too many consumers see the best before date as an absolute cut-off point, although many foods can still be eaten after this time,” explains psychologist Stephan Grünewald, from rheingold, a German market and media analysis institute. Every year, in industrialized countries, 95 to 115 kilograms of perfectly good food is lost or wasted by each person, according to a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

In years to come, ‘intelligent’ or ‘active’ packaging could help reduce food waste. This is a response to experts’ efforts around the world to come up with new ways to inform consumers about the perishability of food and to protect against spoiling. The new systems could display the state of a product, and at the same time increase its lifespan with oxygen absorbers or special acids. As an example, American firm Sonoco is currently developing packaging with integrated microchips that collect information about the condition of a product, such as moisture and temperature. It raises the alarm when preprogrammed thresholds are exceeded or fall below target. “In the future, I expect to see a shift in business models towards direct contact with consumers,” predicts Dr. Anne Roulin from Nestlé.

Environmental awareness

Alongside freshness, increasing numbers of consumers want packaging that can be recycled. According to a survey of 6,000 consumers in ten different countries, carried out by Swedish carton manufacturer Tetra Pak, recyclable packaging is one of the public’s key priorities, as it is seen as kinder to the environment.

Consumers and legislative regulators are becoming increasingly concerned with packaging. The aim here is primarily to encourage the efficient use of resources. This trend is particularly noticeable in Europe. In the Netherlands, for example, a tax is applied to packaging manufacturers according to the average CO2  emissions of the materials used – 36 to 57 euro cents per kilogram for aluminum packaging, 6 euro cents for cardboard.

Transparent bottle with liquid on a shelf
Additives ensure that recycled PET boasts the same quality as new plastic.

Sustainable packaging can be worthwhile for packaging manufacturers and food companies. In Europe in particular, demand is on the rise for paper and cardboard packaging with environmentally friendly recyclable fibers, which are also cost-effective. In addition, companies are working to come up with solutions that simplify packaging designs so that recycling rates rise.

Biodegradable materials

Recycling is one thing; there is growing demand for renewable materials that are biodegradable too. Drinks cartons or food containers, for instance, can be made of biodegradable plastics formed partly of renewable raw materials. After use they can be disposed of and composted with the rest of the food waste.

Reducing the weight of packaging is another way of protecting the environment while protecting companies’ bottom lines. As well as cutting the COemissions generated during transportation, making packaging lighter can reduce costs too. Corrugated cardboard, frequently used in transport packaging for food, can be reduced in weight with the help of fluid synthetic dry strength agents. These mean that fewer paper fibers are needed to construct the cardboard, without compromising its strength.

Focusing on health

In many countries around the world, the trend towards greater sustainability goes hand-in-hand with an enhanced awareness of personal health. As well as information about the contents, food packaging should also provide details relating to nutrition, calories, and possible allergy triggers.

Potentially dangerous substances are not limited to the food, however – they can also be found at times in the packaging material itself. In 2010, researchers at the Zurich Food Safety Authority in Switzerland found that mineral oil residue contained in cardboard packaging was being transferred to foods. The main source of the problem was deemed to be ink used in newspaper printing, which found its way into the packaging via recycled paper. The residue traces detected also occasionally came from inks used to print the food packaging. These oil residues evaporate at room temperature, and can then be transferred to dry foods, such as pasta, semolina, rice, or cornflakes. This is even possible merely when the transportation packaging of the food contains recycled paper. Certain components of mineral oil are suspected of being carcinogens, according to the World Health Organization’s Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, and the FAO.

Package with noodles on a shelf
Packaging made of recycled paper fibers may contain mineral oil residues that can migrate into food.

Mineral oil barrier in packaging

Going forward, one way of reducing or even entirely eradicating mineral oil residue in paper and cardboard packaging is to use water-based binders for mineral oil-free printing of newspapers. In addition, food can be protected against the migration of unwanted substances through functional barriers.

Functional barrier solutions are currently available for practically all types of packaging and standard manufacturing processes. In this way, our food is reliably protected from mineral oil and other potentially critical substances.

Over the last few years, research into the best, most secure types of food packaging has made major advances. Guaranteeing safety, providing freshness, and delivering information, our food’s containers are increasingly sophisticated and play an important role in our everyday lives.

The mineral oil barrier protects food

Food packaging is often made of recycled paper fibers. This recycled paper packaging can contain newspaper ink, which researchers have identified as the main source of potentially harmful mineral oil residues in cartons. These oil residues evaporate at room temperature and can thus be transferred to dry foods that contain fats, such as noodles.

Mineral oil residues can migrate from:

  1. the inner side of contaminated primary packaging
  2. contaminated outer packaging, for example, corrugated board packaging used to hold products during transportation
  3. contaminated packages in close proximity, for example, on the supermarket shelf or in delivery trucks
Diagram of mineral oil barrier protects food