The food industry is characterised by an increasing focus on product differentiation, achieved through product development, the use of new packaging materials and design, prolonged shelf life and increased consumer convenience. A higher rate of innovation and the introduction of new packaging systems are essential for survival in the future.

New shapes and materials, opening mechanisms and print technologies are constantly being introduced, and it is imperative for the packaging industry to understand and meet these changing demands.

Complex interaction

Once the packaging is sealed, the sensory and nutritional quality of, for example, juice is greatly influenced by the barrier property of the package, as well as by the interaction of the juice with the package and its environment during storage. Deterioration processes during storage related to product-specific characteristics and environmental conditions, such as temperature, are inevitable.

Consequently, processors have to consider a large number of factors when selecting a packaging system for the new food. And when product composition, quality and packaging system have been defined, the distribution conditions are vital, which is why certain questions should be asked: Will the product be distributed in the cold chain with limited shelf life, or with extended shelf life? Does the product require shelf stability and aseptic processing and packaging? How will the product be positioned in the market?

There is a trend towards a greater variety of both products and packaging systems, and the interaction between them is becoming more complex. Consequently, the need to understand both the product and all factors that will affect the product during distribution are of increasing importance.

Permeation of oxygen into the package will result in oxidation reactions, flavour alterations and the risk of aerobic microbiological growth, while permeation out of the package may lead to loss of flavour and freshness. Migration of compounds from the packaging material must comply with strict regulations set by FDA and EU directives, and the material should not impart any flavour to the food.

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Traditionally, product protection through packaging has been achieved through passive barriers, and both industrial and academic research have centred on improving barriers through chemistry, engineering and material science. In recent years, however, industrial development has evolved into a host of interactive technologies in which not only one but several benefits have been achieved through systematic engineering of more than one active element.

Active and intelligent packaging

The development in active and intelligent packaging continues, although the commercial exploitation has been slower than expected a few years ago. Active packaging is engineered to sense alterations in the in-package environment and change some property to alter that environment.

This could mean the removal of oxygen, moisture and odour, or the addition of aroma and antimicrobial organisms. The best known of these chemical agents are oxygen scavengers, which now include compounds incorporated into the packaging structure as well as sachets of reactive compounds.

Intelligent packaging has, to date, been devices that measure and integrate, but do not respond. Examples include locators, theft and counterfeiting deterrents, and time-temperature integrators. The package of the future may control internal humidity and oxygen, and disperse antimicrobial organisms and desirable aromas into the package from a single package surface.

The challenge of the future is for food scientists and technologists to cooperate closely with packaging engineers to introduce new foods in packaging with optimal protection, consumer convenience and product positioning.