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When asked, the vast majority of consumers state that they read the information on the food packaging they buy. Labels as well as the packaging itself are increasingly important means of communication. The Taste Tomorrow survey shows that consumers look for all types of information. Clear labels and information from field to fork contribute to providing the required transparency. We asked two experts how they see the future of food packaging.
This is part 1 of 2 in an interview series on transparency & food packaging. This is a conversation with Peter Ragaert, project manager at Pack4Food* and a professor in packaging technology at Ghent University.
What are the main trends in food packaging?
“I see three main trends that will define the future of food packaging. The first trend is society moving into a circular economy: a system where there is no waste. Packaging should thus be reusable, recyclable or compostable. In fact, in the long term, incineration will no longer be an option. We should recover all packaging materials at the end of their lifecycle, and transform them into new resources. That is easier said than done, as a lot of packaging contains multi layers or is composed of different materials, which makes it a lot more difficult to recycle. To tackle this, I see two main solutions. On the one hand we will need to focus as much as possible on creating mono-material solutions, i.e. using only one material, such as plastic, cardboard, glass or metal. Secondly, if you for example look at plastics, we really need to try and avoid multi-layered plastics.
A second main trend is smart packaging. That is a type of packaging that can provide you with extra information that is not visible on the package itself. There are various types of smart packaging, such as packaging that is able to monitor its environment, using sensors that measure the temperature or relative humidity. Certain types of smart packaging can also monitor the product quality itself. A sensor inside the packaging can then measure for example the aroma that is coming from the product. These techniques will further evolve.
A third main packaging trend is everything around logistics, especially in the field of e-commerce. One example is packaging that is directly linked to the internet (IoT). Packaging can communicate with both the supplier and consumer, providing them with relevant real time data. You might be able to see where the packaging is at a certain moment, what its temperature is, and if it has been opened or not. Of course this is closely related to the smart packaging trend.”
Do you expect smart food packaging with freshness indicators, such as those that already exist for fruit and vegetables, to grow?
“At this moment there are only very few commercial applications for this type of smart packaging. It is quite challenging to find a sensor that can be used for a broad range of products, as every product acts in a different way during storage. In many cases a biscuit will start to have fat oxidation, while for meat products there will be more growth of bacteria, starting to produce for example lactic acid. For every type of food product you basically need another type of sensor or you will need a sensor able to detect many different components.
It is very difficult and costly to integrate such technology on a large scale. How are we for instance going to put the sensor in the packaging? There are ideas to integrate the technology during the printing of the packaging. But of course the printing is on the outside, while you need the sensor on the inside. Integrating sensor technology could have a negative effect on the recyclability as well.
Although there are still challenges to overcome, freshness indicators look very promising. Today the shelf life date is based on storage experiments, but always taking into account a safety margin, which leads to avoidable food losses. If you manage to get a sensor that is objectively telling you if a product is still acceptable, even if the shelf life date has already been passed, you could reduce food losses. There is potential for sure, but at this moment we are not there yet. I think we still need five to ten years for this to develop.”
What are the most important trends in food labeling?
“As my expertise is focused on packaging technology, I look at food labeling from that perspective. Technology can provide new possibilities. In general we can expect new techniques being used to provide additional information to consumers. More and more information should be put on the label, while often there is not enough space for it. Smart technology is introduced to inform consumers in yet another way, such as by using QR codes, digital watermarking or NFC tags.
There is a growth in the use of QR codes, and in fact they are extending their functionalities. Traditionally these codes can be scanned by the consumer and then link to a website or app with additional information, for example a preparation suggestion or information about a product’s origin—where, how and by whom it has been made. In the future these codes will also be used to serve as an anti-fraud filter, as a simple way to proof authenticity. Agfa, a company producing and distributing imaging systems and IT solutions, has developed a QR code for the printing industry where in the middle they print some sort of 3D watermark that provides certainty on a product's authenticity.
Another very important trend is labeling that is not visible to the consumer. Different companies are now experimenting with printing digital watermarks on the packaging that cannot be seen by the naked eye, but can be detected with special cameras. This can be used to improve the sorting of different materials, but you can also add a certain code that serves as a product authenticity key as well. It is an evolution we see in those digital watermarks.
A third example is NFC technology. NFC is short for Near Field Communication. It’s a technique used for contactless payments, but it has many other applications. Think for example of adding a NFC tag in the cap of a bottle. When the consumer holds their smartphone very close to the bottle the smartphone will open a website. On that website you can fill in for example a number that is on the label (or a code) and an online database can check if that bottle is authentic or not, or provide other relevant data.”
In Europe we see countries embracing the Nutri-score as an indicator of a product's healthiness. How do you see the packaging industry respond to this?
“The Nutri-Score focuses on the food product itself. As we are mostly involved in projects related with packaging, it does not impact our projects that much. However we see that companies would also like to have such a score for the packaging itself, more specifically a sustainability score. That would provide a way to communicate in a very clear way to consumers, for example regarding the recyclability of the packaging material. Such a score would be very interesting, but getting there will be quite challenging. Because just as with the Nutri-score, when you want to design such a label it should be based on objective, scientific data. Life Cycle Assessments that also take into account the sorting and recycling of the product are a good means to work towards this.”
Fueled by the consumer demand for transparency, we see a growing demand for cleaner labels. What are the consequences for the packaging industry?
“The consequences are in fact quite large. Certain additives that have now been reduced provided a function in the original product formulation. They were needed to ensure a certain shelf life. When you decrease those additives, or you decrease the salt or fat content, you have to make sure that you can safeguard the same shelf life in another way. That’s where food packaging can play an important role, as it can protect the food product from oxygen, water, light and so on. This means that the role of the packaging will become more important in the future. In fact to compensate for the cleaner label we have to use more complex packaging materials to have the same shelf life. So a cleaner label might have a negative impact on the environmental impact of the packaging. This is a delicate equilibrium. Creating a cleaner label or making changes in the packaging should never lead to more food losses, as food waste is always the most harmful to the environment.”
What is needed to speed up the development of more sustainable packaging?
“One of the goals of the European Union is to export more food products that are packed using recycled materials. Still at the same time we have a huge responsibility to guarantee food safety. Recycled materials need to be decontaminated to make sure that all the components from the previous application are removed. In some cases this can make the recycled material less ‘sustainable’ than the virgin product.
What we now see is that, in accordance with European regulations, only PET is allowed to be used as a recycled material for food. So that is a big challenge for the future. If we want to use more recycled materials there should also be regulation for other materials, like for example polypropylene (PP). This is a packaging material that is used a lot in patisserie and biscuits, because it has a very good water barrier. There is a lot of this packaging material on the market, and a lot of it is mono layer and thus easy to recycle. But at the moment legislation does not allow the use of recycled polypropylene in food packaging. In my opinion this should be tackled really soon by the European authorities, because we need more and other types of plastic than PET to be used as recycled material.
Another important step in the development of more sustainable packaging is to increase the collaboration between all stakeholders in food packaging. Recently, the roadmap ‘food packaging of the future’ was launched, coordinated by Pack4Food together with four spearhead clusters: Flanders’ FOOD, VIL, Catalisti and SIM. This roadmap defines more than 50 innovation trajectories towards future food packaging, including different ideas for more sustainable packaging. It will stimulate further intense collaboration between all stakeholders in food packaging.”
*Pack4Food is a non-profit organization, bringing together companies throughout the food packaging chain, research institutions, as well as governmental organisations and federations. Pack4Food aims to stimulate innovation in food packaging from both food producers and their suppliers. Next to that Pack4Food supports companies in their everyday packaging challenges.
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