Food packaging may quickly get tossed in the trash when it comes time to eat what’s inside, but the technology inherent in much of that packaging is anything but garbage.
Food processors use several different methods of packaging to combat the various factors that can render a product inedible, such as the presence of oxygen, overabundance of moisture and growth of pathogens or molds. While food packaging can simply be a wrapper for a product, the concept of active packaging has been used by food processors for multiple applications to help food retain its freshness and edibility.
Dr. Bruce Harte, professor at the Michigan State University school of packaging, detailed the two types of packaging, active and passive, used in the food processing industry, as well as some of the upcoming developments in packaging at a recent event hosted by Varnum LLP at the law firm’s Grand Rapids offices.
Harte sees packaging as having three main functions, especially in the realm of food packaging.
“Packaging’s number one importance is to protect the product,” Harte said. “Then we have the whole thing of utility and convenience which has actually been a driver of packaging development in the past 30 years. Then we have the final aspect which is communication, to be able to provide some information about what’s in that product.”
In its most basic, passive form, food packaging serves simply as a layer of material that separates the product from the external environment.
“The material is there, (but) it doesn’t do anything to interact with changes in the product or changes in the environment,” Harte said.
This packaging includes everything from Styrofoam to aluminum — anything that provides a barrier between the food product and the outside environment while not interacting with the product in such a way that it would render it unsuitable for consumption.
The second type of packaging has been developed more recently: active packaging.
“Active means that there is something in that package that responds to some triggering event, either in the product or in the environment,” Harte said. “So, in addition to the passive nature of this material, we’re going to put something either in the product or in the material that is triggered by something — either in the product or the environment — that allows an additional function to occur.”
These additional functions include everything from more recently developed technologies like antimicrobial packaging that slows the growth of pathogens in the product to more familiar products like desiccant packages, which prevent products from absorbing moisture. Other common active packaging methods include the use of oxygen scavengers that oxidize in the presence of oxygen to prevent rot, color change and the growth of aerobic organisms like mold, as well as ultraviolet light blockers to prevent lipid oxidation.
“This is all about maintaining the shelf life of the product, protecting the quality and, in some cases, to help enhance the safety of the product,” Harte said.
The forms the active packaging takes vary from small pouches, called sachets, that are often used in pharmaceuticals and meat packaging to having the passive packaging impregnated with the active compounds, thus allowing the compound to diffuse into the product as needed.
Additionally, Harte highlighted the use of oxygen scavengers inside the caps of beer bottles as an excellent example of how active packaging can be rendered invisible to consumers by being integrated into the closure method of the product.
The compounds used in active packaging pose negligible risks to consumers, Harte said.
“It’s very, very limited because it either stays inside of a sachet that’s labeled ‘Do not eat,’ or it’s placed into the packaging material, and all the stuff that goes into packaging material has to be FDA-approved,” he said.
Looking ahead, Harte sees two main areas for growth in the food packaging industry: antimicrobial active packaging and the development of packaging that takes advantage of packaging’s role as a communication device. Harte told MiBiz that in the future he envisions the level of interaction between consumers and packaging will go beyond just what is possible now through the use of QR codes and smartphone apps.
“There’s going to be all sorts of big changes over the next five to 10 years with how we interact with packaging,” Harte said. “We’re going to see a huge change and a huge development with being able to interact with the information on packaging through your phone, information that will tell you all kinds of things, not just where to find it, but how to prepare it, what the nutritional content is, what the shelf life is, how much of that shelf life is left. Maybe not so far off it will be able to tell you if there’s something in that packaging, a pathogen or so forth that you don’t want to consume.”
The other research area where Harte sees major potential for development is in the use of sustainable materials, especially as processors try to economize.
“We’ve got sustainability issues which are very important in packaging today, and they’re moving forward primarily, I think, because sustainability results in cost savings,” Harte told MiBiz in an interview. “We’re trying to use those (bio-based materials) as effective substitutes for our polymeric materials. We’re being moderately successful so far, but we’ll see where that goes.”