Expected to reach a global value of USD 515 billion by 2028, food packaging is an incredibly important industry that plays an indispensable role in our daily lives. From the moment products leave the production line until the customer purchases them, food packaging ensures the safety, freshness, and accessibility of the food we rely on to survive.
For consumers, food packaging guarantees the quality and safety of the products they purchase. It preserves the flavour of ripe fruits, keeps crisps and biscuits fresh, and prolongs the life of perishables. At the same time, for the food industry, packaging is about keeping the fine balance of preservation, branding, and sustainability.
In this complete guide, we will explore different food packaging materials, the history behind the industry, current technology and practices, and the exciting innovations in store for the future.
Choosing the right material for food packaging
Before choosing a specific type of packaging and material, you first need to identify the criteria that it needs to meet. The food packaging you choose must meet the requirements of the food it contains, otherwise it can lead to one of many risks, including damage, contamination, or overexposure to light.
Here are four things you need to consider:
1. The nature of the food
Different foods have different needs. Fresh produce typically requires breathable packaging to prevent moisture buildup, whilst dry goods tend to benefit from moisture-resistant materials. Perishables including the likes of yoghurts or creams will need an airtight seal to keep the product fresh before the consumer opens it.
2. Form and function
Consider how people will physically handle the product. Does it need to be rigid to protect delicate items? Will consumers need to see the contents, requiring transparent or translucent materials? Is it meant to be held whilst you eat it? These are all important things to consider.
3. Branding and Presentation
The aesthetics of a product greatly influence the likelihood of a consumer purchasing it. Therefore, it is vital that packaging takes advantage of this, whilst still adhering to its other requirements. Some materials are more conducive to vibrant, eye-catching designs, which can be crucial for marketing. Others may give off a sense of luxury or simplicity that aligns with a brand's identity.
4.Sustainability and environmental impact
Sustainability is now a top priority for many brands, consumers, and the world as a whole. Choosing materials with minimal environmental impact is essential in meeting these expectations and regulations set out to enforce them.
Food packaging materials
Now, let's explore some of the most common food packaging materials and their advantages and disadvantages:
Plastic is lightweight, versatile, and cost-effective. It can be moulded into various shapes and is readily available. Examples include PET (polyethylene terephthalate) used for beverage bottles and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) for milk jugs.
However, many plastics are not easily biodegradable, contributing to environmental concerns. While some types can be recycled, many end up in landfills or oceans, causing pollution or other environmental damage.
Cardboard and paper
Paperboard and cardboard are often used for their rigidity, versatility, and eco-friendly image. They are also biodegradable and recyclable, and can be seen used for cereals, chocolate, long-lasting milk, and many other products.
Whilst they are great for their sustainability, these materials may require energy-intensive processes for manufacturing.
Metal is known for its durability and airtight sealing properties. They effectively preserve food and are highly recyclable. Examples include aluminium cans for beverages and steel cans for canned vegetables.
Metal does also have its downsides. It can be heavy, and their production has an environmental footprint, including energy usage and mining impacts.
Historically, glass has always been a great choice for storing food due to its low costs and easy production. It is also non-reactive, preserving the taste and quality of the food. One of its greatest benefits is its sustainability, being incredibly easy to reuse and recycle. Examples include glass jars for sauces and condiments.
However, glass is fragile and heavy, making it less suitable for some applications. It can also be more energy-intensive to produce than other materials.
Known for their durability, ceramics can retain the freshness and flavour of food. They are often used for specialty products like tableware and containers for gourmet items.
Whilst great at storing food, ceramics are heavy and prone to breakage, limiting their use for certain applications.
What is the best food packaging material?
Determining the best material for food packaging depends on the specific needs of the product and the priorities of the manufacturer. The choice of material can significantly influence branding, preservation, and sustainability, so it's crucial to weigh the advantages and disadvantages carefully.
The history of food packaging
The earliest forms of food packaging were rudimentary yet ingenious. Primitive societies used natural materials like leaves, gourds, and animal skins to protect and transport their food. These materials served as basic containers, offering a level of protection against environmental elements and pests.
Ancient civilizations, including the Greeks and Romans, stored and transported oils, wines, and other commodities in clay vessels. These vessels not only provided protection but also played a role in preserving the contents due to the non-reactive nature of clay.
The Middle Ages saw some significant changes to food storage and transportation. Wooden barrels and casks became commonplace for storing and transporting liquids such as ale and wine. The use of glass bottles gained popularity during the Renaissance, offering a transparent and hygienic solution for liquids.
The Industrial Revolution brought about massive changes in food packaging. The invention of the tin can in the early 19th century by Peter Durand revolutionised food preservation and distribution. This airtight container played a pivotal role in feeding armies, supporting long sea voyages, and extending the shelf life of various goods.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries gave birth to the use of paperboard and cardboard packaging. Cereal boxes, for instance, became iconic symbols of packaged food on supermarket shelves. With the introduction of plastics in the mid-20th century, packaging options expanded further. Lightweight, versatile, and moldable plastics revolutionised the industry but also introduced new environmental challenges.
Notable historical innovations
Food packaging has seen many scientific breakthroughs throughout history. Here are some of the most impactful that still affect the way we store food today:
- Tetra Pak - Invented by Ruben Rausing, the tetra pak revolutionised the packaging of liquids. Built with multiple layers of paperboard, aluminium, and polyethylene, the tetra pak provides a lightweight and sterile solution for products like milk and fruit juices.
- Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP): Developed in the 20th century, MAP alters the composition of gases within a package to extend the shelf life of perishable products. This innovation significantly impacted the preservation of fresh produce, meats, and other sensitive items.
- Plastic bottles and PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate): The widespread adoption of plastic bottles for beverages, particularly the introduction of PET, changed the beverage industry forever. These lightweight and durable containers have become the standard for nearly any liquid.
- Microwavable Packaging: With the rise of convenience culture, microwavable packaging became a game-changer. Packaging materials designed for microwave use allowed consumers to heat and consume food directly in the packaging, reducing the need for additional utensils.
- Sustainable Packaging Solutions: In recent years, a growing awareness of environmental issues has spurred innovations in sustainable packaging. Biodegradable materials, compostable packaging, and efforts to reduce single-use plastics represent a concerted industry response to environmental concerns.
The future of food packaging: what can we expect to see?
The future of food packaging is teeming with new ideas and redefining the industry. These technologies promise not only enhanced efficiency but also a more sustainable and consumer-centric approach.
Smart packaging and IOT integration
Smart packaging is set to make big changes in food packaging with the integration of the Internet Of Things (IOT). Imagine packaging that includes sensors providing real-time data on freshness, temperature, and even usage. This interconnectedness not only streamlines supply chain management but ensures that consumers receive products at the peak of their quality.
Whilst still in its infancy, nanotechnology holds immense promise for food packaging. Packaging materials with nanoparticles are set to revolutionise barrier properties, extending the shelf life of products and offering indicators of overall quality. Nanotechnology brings a level of precision and sophistication that will change the game forever.
Scientists are exploring materials that not only shield food but are also consumable. Imagine packaging that dissolves harmlessly in the mouth or adds a unique flavour to complement the contents. This would greatly reduce waste and greatly enhance the convenience of the consumer.
Sustainability has been a priority of packaging for decades and continues to be a prime focus for scientists moving forward. From biodegradable plastics to plant-based alternatives, the industry is on the cusp of a green revolution, driven by the worldwide need to reduce single-use plastics and embrace eco-friendly solutions.
3D printing is evolving beyond just prototypes and into the real world implementations. Imagine packaging tailored to the specific needs of a product, optimising shape, size, and functionality. This not only reduces excess material but offers a level of customization that keeps up with the constantly changing needs of the consumer.
Biometric and bioresponsive packaging
Research shows that biometric and bioresponsive packaging might actually become reality. Packaging that reads the biological signals of the food it holds, and adjusts conditions accordingly, could completely revolutionise food storage. This would massively affect other industries too, such as pharmaceuticals and medical devices.
Want to learn more about food packaging technology?
Food packaging is so important for consumers around the world. Tracking its development from ancient times all the way to the present day, we can expect to see massive changes to the industry as we move forward.