Designing the packaging material exactly the way we want can be challenging. There are a few parameters that need to be considered while deciding a packaging material for our food products. Such as, It should be in line with the product theme, protect the product for desirable shelf life, appeal to consumers be user-friendly, be cost-effective, easily available, reproducible, and should comply with regulations.

In the article, the evolution of packaging material over the years right from the ancient era till the current industries’ expectations has been described. There are several packaging techniques used widely in the food sector. The selection of packaging technique is dependent on the food type, its contents, shelf-life, quality of ingredients used, etc.

Evolution of Packaging Techniques

The evolution of Packaging material has taken place at a large scale. In earlier days, natural material was used for food packaging purposes. It includes tree leaves, bamboo, lotus leaves, gourds, coconut shells, shells of shellfish, animal skin, etc. Over the period, manmade material has been developed for packaging. A few examples such as fabrics, metals, ceramic material, wooden ware, papers, jade ware, etc.

Paper: It is the oldest form of packaging. Sheets of mulberry bark were used as a packaging material in the first or second century B.C. by the Chinese. In today’s world, Paper is known as a Flexible packaging.

Glass: In 3500 BC, Egyptians developed glass packaging for food and water by blowing the glass and shaping it into a container. In 1700, the first manufacturing of Tin plates was developed in England and later in France. It has served the purpose
of prolonged preservation of food products.

Natural Fibres: Refrigerators and freezers did not exist back then, so whatever they could hunt and forage, they had to immediately consume. If they needed to transport their food, they had to make with whatever nature had provided. Containers were made from animal skin, shells, and gourds. Baskets and bags were made from grass, wood, and other pliable natural fibers.

Wooden barrels: were common packaging in the Middle Ages. Their robustness helped transport food, especially during long journeys. Barrels and wooden boxes were used to store water, rum, and dried food while traversing across oceans.

Plastic packaging: It was developed during World War II. Multiplayer coextruded films and sheets were introduced for flexible and rigid packaging. This technology of combining different polymers to make a composite structure helped the packaging with significantly improved barrier performance for oxygen, moisture, light, etc.

Use of Packaging Machinery

The invention of machines caused the birth of new industries and allowed trading to flourish. Hence, the need for various packaging technologies was established. The focus was on mass production and distribution and hence the food packaging had to be durable, easy to produce, and accessible.

Food preservation was also a high priority during this time as new transportation methods allowed businesses and individuals to travel more often. Shopping trends have changed over the years and people tend to buy a particular product when the packaging material is catchy and impressive.

There are several parameters such as packaging that reduces or eliminates waste, packaging that is environmentally friendly, packaging for online ordering, packaging should have minimalist labels, packaging that complies with Government regulations
i.e. EPR, packaging that is low cost and high performance, versatile packaging.

Latest Packaging Trends

Intelligent Packaging: It is known as the packaging that interacts with consumers or responds to environmental conditions. For example, some packages have been designed to change color when they detect a food item has gone bad. RFID tags are
used to keep track of food items.

Temperature sensors are used to ensure the food stays suitable temperature. There are currently three major types of intelligent packaging technologies available; bio-sensors, gas sensors, and temperature indicators.

Smart Packaging: This permits transparency through an instantaneous ability to track and trace the exact location of a product in the supply chain using unique barcodes, QR codes, or RFID technology. Currently, three major types of intelligent packaging technologies are available; bio-sensors, gas sensors, and temperature indicators.

Active Packaging: It is known as the packaging that releases gases or absorbs moisture to extend the shelf life of food items. For example, some packages use oxygen absorbers to reduce the amount of oxygen in the package. By removing oxygen, the absorbers help prevent food items from becoming oxidized and turning brown.

Pouch Packaging: It is one of the most popular types of packaging and the preferred type in many countries. It is convenient to open; use and seal back for multiple servings. Microwaveable trays with divided compartments are also gaining in popularity, as they allow consumers to cook multiple items at once.

Bio-Plastics: These are sturdy materials that can replace conventional petroleum-based plastics for sustainable food packaging. Materials derived from renewable resources and bio-degradable polymers are considered bio-plastic. For example; PLA, PHA, PBAT, and starch.

Bio-plastics or bio-polymers from renewable resources have attracted growing interest from industries as a solution to the environmental problems and limited resources of petroleum-based polymers.

Bio-plastics are a diverse family of materials, some are made from biomass, such as plants, trees, or animals, and some are now even being designed from food waste. It helps to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel-based petroleum inputs for plastic production. Bio-plastics are preferred more over conventional plastic. They are more sustainable, non-toxic, and eco-friendly.

Recycling of Packaging Material

About 60% of global plastic waste comes from food packaging. Brands are finding ways to limit single-use plastic, BPA packaging, and other non-recyclable and dangerous materials by packaging products in more eco-friendly containers.

Some other retailers are making the recycling process more convenient by giving consumers the option to return their cans, bottles, and other recyclable items to the store. Some other examples of sustainable food packaging materials such as glass containers, stainless steel, bamboo, rice husk, and gelatin films.

Augmented Reality Packaging

The food industry is taking advantage of this demographic and combining it with modern tech in the food industry to create an augmented reality experience for its consumers through AR packaging. With AR packaging, consumers use their phones to connect to games, images, videos, websites, and health information.

The use of AR packaging leads to a more positive customer experience as they are more engaged and have access to more information to help them make better health decisions. AR packaging can help meet the growing need for brand transparency. Here are some other examples of how companies are using AR packaging such as giving food preparation instructions, connecting to others, viewing demonstrations, examining objects in 3D, and learning how the food goes from the farm to the plate.

Flexible Food Packaging

It is another branch of the sustainable packaging movement. It helps minimize the materials you use in your packaging by molding to your products’ shape and size versus using stiff materials with large amounts of wasted space.

Flexible packaging uses less water and energy to produce, which is healthier for the environment. In addition, it has several other benefits for the consumer and manufacturer such as being lightweight, easy to pack and bring in lunch bags or purses as a snack, easy to store, and re-sealable design reduces food waste.

Biodegradable Packaging

Biodegradable packaging and films gain traction and are suitable replacements for traditional plastic packaging. For example, starch, cellulose, PLA, polyhydroxy butyrate (PHB), polyhydroxy alkanets (PHA), and other biopolymers. Plant-based packaging from sugarcane, coconut, hemp, and corn starch also replaces plastic packaging. These innovations are economical for businesses to adopt and reduce the environmental impacts of the packaging sector.

Sea Weed Packaging

This has been developed by Oceanium, a UK-based Start-up manufacturer. It produces a bio-packaging material, home compostable bio-packaging, and the earliest version of its packaging is made to be composted for soil health or for anaerobic digestion to generate energy.

Self-Heating Packaging

As the name suggests, packaging heats your food without requiring external heat sources like fire or hot water. Self-heating bowls are a sophisticated form of this technology. The exothermic reaction is activated by pressing a button outside of the bowl. It will heat your food in 5-10 minutes. The inner chamber accommodates the food or drinks while the outer chamber holds chemicals that create an exothermic reaction when combined.

A ring on the can is pulled to heat the contents of the can. It breaks the barrier which lets the water mix with the chemicals for the reaction. They are lightweight portable and easy to fit into your backpack. They are safe as well as ready to use. There is no release of dangerous gases as the operation is completely flame-less while the temperature is restricted within the limits. They are safe for disposal with household trash and can be recycled.

Edible Packaging

This is a revolutionary packaging industry trend that addresses these challenges and also enables a closed-loop for packaging. A good example is packaging made from milk protein used as casein film around food products. These films are better at keeping food fresh, compared to plastic. Automation in packaging techniques has helped to reduce the intensity of challenges that occur while designing and selecting the appropriate packaging material.

Packaging automation with the use of robotic arms and grippers not only eliminates human errors but also ensures the safe handling of delicate products. Various packaging techniques are used widely in the food industry depending on the product requirements and demands.

The new packaging techniques have contributed to enhancing the food shelf life, food safety, and food quality. However, there are a few challenges that occur during the development of packaging material. The major challenges associated with packaging are productivity, precision, and quality control. The packaging is designed by the company and is based on its usage, expected shelf life, cost and availability, and as per Government regulations.

Authors

Ft Shashank Joshi, GM of Parag Milk Foods

FT. Madhura Gokhale, Freelancer.

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Author

I'm a Post Graduate in Food, Nutrition and Clinical Dietetics. Currently I'm thriving in my role as a Senior Sub-Editor at Food Infotech Magazine. My passion-driven research and engaging interviews with industry leaders captivate readers, bridging the realms of taste, health, and innovation in gastronomy while sparking curiosity about the future of food.

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