Portion-control packages number in the tens and tens of billions, almost too many to count. Every time any of us frequent an away-from-home eating establishment, we overtly or unknowingly use unit-portion packages of food or food components.
The most visible and familiar are, of course, the small unit-portion packs of ketchup, mustard, liquid coffee lighteners, and sweeteners appearing in quick-service food establishments. Less familiar are the size-portioned packages used in retail foodservice backrooms and kitchens of precut steak, frozen French fried potatoes, and ground beef patties.
And then there are retail packages of carefully portioned foods for home preparation and both home and on-the-go eating: multiples of liquid coffee lightener; cans of carbonated beverages; lunch kits; precut salad vegetables; and single-serve juice and flavored milk. And in the immediacy of contemporary business, portion control seems to be one route to “controlling carbs,” whatever that fad means.
So much of today’s food has made the transition from bulk and large to unit size that we might wonder how soon the former might become obsolete. This might lead us to question the economics of unit-portion sizes: with so much surface-to-volume/weight, the cost of the package structure must be much higher than for large packages—especially since, with the higher surface-to-content ratio, greater barrier must be built into the larger package surface area. Here’s the answer: when the total systems cost is computed, the net is better for the unit-portion size than for the bulk, based on less food loss and waste.
Portion control is hardly new, having been a direction taken by foodservice oprerators decades ago to help reduce waste and labor kitchen and back-room food preparation operations. Among the reasons for the success of quick-service foodservice retailers was the ability to rapidly and accurately deliver uniformity with little labor. Ground beef patties were precisely specified in terms of dimensions, weight, and fat content to enable a relatively unskilled person to cook the product under precise temperature and time conditions. Not yet fully automated, billions of hamburgers, each virtually identical to the next, are produced in all of the thousands of quick-service establishments dedicated to that particular eating experience.
Carrying the concept further: single pouches containing uniform weights of frozen French-fried potatoes are poured into uniform volumes of frying oil at uniform temperatures to fry for uniform times controlled automatically by the equipment to be measured into uniform scoops and into uniform paperboard cups for consumption.
Uniformity does not imply any deficiency of quality. In fact, most consumers seem to perceive the quality of quick-service French-fried potatoes as excellent and reliable, despite the media fury over an implied relationship between French-fried potatoes from quick-service outlets and health issues that are, of course, far more complicated. Uniformity is a means to deliver rapidly, which, after all, is one reason why consumers frequent quick-service restaurants.
Focus on quick-service operations here should not imply that other foodservice operations use any fewer portion-control products, or that retail consumers are denied the opportunities to apply portion control to their food preparation activities.
Portion Control Begins with the Product
Before venturing into the realm of packaging for portion control—which, in essence, is the definition of the concept—it is necessary to understand that portion control begins with the product itself. The product must be weighed, measured, and sized to fit one or more downstream operations such as dispensing, drinking, mixing, stirring, cooking, heating, serving, topping, smearing, spreading, licking, etc. One recent target for fresh red meat for case-ready packaging is to offer steaks that are the same in every dimension/mass as each other, regardless of individual consumer desires for less, more, higher, shorter, fattier, leaner, more tender, etc.
Alterations in the basic chemistry and physics of the food may lead to major changes in the performance in specific operations. How many packets of mustard are required to season one hot dog at the local ball field? Is the sausage six inches or one foot long? Has it been boiled or broiled? Is it all-beef or a mix? Does it contain fillers? Has it been split during the heating process? How thick are the frozen potatoes? At what temperature have they been held prior to dispensing into the automatic fryer? Thus, the widely accepted and used concept of portion control begins with the product and its characteristics.
The packaging of portion-control foods, long thought to be the totality of the concept, is really only one element of a more intricate system. Examination of just a few examples should illustrate this.
• Dry Seasonings. Among the most widely used portion-control products are dry condiments such as salt or pepper in packets. Salt is a somewhat hygroscopic granule that must be protected against environmental moisture. Packaging in polyethylene-coated paper effectively protects unit-portion sizes of salt while simultaneously providing ease of opening for the vast majority of consumers. However, consumers must carefully dispense the product to avoid pockets of over-salted food. Thus, the inexpensive packet might be upgraded by using injection-molded polypropylene mini-shakers with perforated tops to permit controlled dispensing.
Salt’s cousin, pepper, is not as hygroscopic. Furthermore, it comes in larger granules whose dispensing must be more carefully controlled, since too much is definitely undesirable and too little is ineffective.
And, since these products are, in effect, given away, the tiny packages must be very inexpensive, reasonably reliable, and, from a processor’s perspective, easy and fast to fill. To meet the vast needs, high output—which in this instance equates to fast—must be the order. Outputs of packaging machinery for unit-portion dry products are in the range of 1,000/min—with precision down to a figurative one grain per packet to ensure against over or under fill and to control costs.
• Fluid Condiments/Spreads. Fluid condiments such as ketchup and salsa; fluids such as salad dressings, pizza, and pasta toppings; and spreads such as butter, margarine, and jelly all represent different packaging challenges. Some, such as bread and cracker spreads, are used primarily by consumers; some, such as ketchup, are used by both consumers and chefs/cooks; and some, such as pizza and pasta toppings, are used solely by chefs/cooks. Yet the portion control must be just as precise for back-room/kitchen as for front-of-the-store retail consumers.
Fluid products such as ketchup and jellies are subject to microbiological growth but are high acid, so are generally hot filled, although some is aseptically packaged for back-room operations. In addition, both categories are vulnerable to biochemical oxidation and should be packaged with low oxygen in oxygen barrier packaging. Most unit-portion ketchup is in four-side-seal aluminum foil pouches which are simultaneously heat resistant and oxygen barriers, with hot filling serving to minimize but hardly eliminate oxygen. Furthermore, the temperatures applied for hot filling for unit-portion sizes are often not as strict as they might be for consumer bottles. The final product might not always adhere to the rigorous quality standards for consumer products but are nevertheless satisfactory for the generally shorter distribution channels for which they are intended.
• Salsas. Salsa products tend to be less viscous, more heterogeneous, more variable in formulation, and more microbiologically stable (lower pH), so they have graduated into thermoformed coextruded barrier plastic cups with heat-sealed flexible lidding. As with ketchup, reliance on tighter distribution control abets the more casual application of food preservation technologies than applied for consumer packaged equivalents.
• Sweet Spreads. Jellies and related bread and cracker spreads are susceptible to microbiological spoilage and so must be hot filled, although the temperature range applied is quite variable, depending almost on the package material and its heat resistance. Although the temperatures employed vary from packager to packager, few microbiological problems are encountered, suggesting that this is almost a non-issue. Oxidative changes are hardly infrequent—perhaps in part due to the excessive oxygen present when hot filling is really closer to warm filling. Packaging ranges from aluminum foil lamination pouches to thermoformed barrier plastic cups to simple monolayer polyester cups with heat-seal flexible closures.
• High-Fat Spreads. High-lipid spreads require fat-resistant packaging to retard leakages, so one of the favored packages is thermoformed monolayer plastic cups and now aluminum foil lamination wraps, not the optimum fat barrier.
• Crackers and Cookies. The products on which the spreads are spread, crackers and other hard baked goods, are very vulnerable to moisture gain and consequent loss of masticatory properties, and possible rancidity. In packaging with a high surface-to-volume ratio, the moisture barrier of the material and transmission of the structure (seal) must be high to retain the desired textural characteristics. Simultaneously, the package must be inexpensive and capable of high output. Oriented polypropylene film on continuous-motion-flow wrappers meets the requirements for the relatively short distribution channels involved.
Staling is such a serious problem with soft bakery goods that this product category generally is not packaged, in any format, but rather delivered on an as-baked basis.
Packaging Liquid Coffee Whiteners
A most interesting class of products is the virtually ubiquitous coffee whiteners—often erroneously called creamers, even when the product is without any dairy component. One ambient-temperature shelf-stable member of this category is dry powder, which is often packaged in aluminum-foil-lamination pouches. The package material is intended as a moisture barrier to retain the free-flowing characteristics.
Liquid coffee whitener packaging preservation technologies fall into two classifications: ultra clean and aseptic. Probably the largest proportion of liquid is packaged in what might be the earliest overt manifestation of hurdle technology: ultra clean or extended shelf life.
• Ultra Clean. The liquid product is sterilized in ultra-high-temperature, short-time heat exchangers and clean filled into presterilized (a commercial application of gamma radiation) preformed polystyrene cups on deposit/fill/seal equipment. Closure is with heat-sealed flexible coated or laminated material.
However effective and fast the systems are, they are not, by regulatory definition or data, sterile due to the original engineering of the equipment that has not been upgraded in a microbiological sense. Thus, the packaged product must be distributed under refrigerated conditions—a practice that helps to retain the quality as well as obviate the infrequent microbiological problems. This compromise also permits the use of non-barrier packaging such as the commonly used polystyrene cups.
• Aseptic. Although ultra clean approaches sterility, aseptic achieves it from both technical and regulatory perspectives. Derived from European practice, aseptic processing and packaging employs much the same high-temperature, short-time heating to achieve product sterility. The packaging system is thermoform/fill/seal (although some preformed cup deposit/fill/seal machines can be aseptic)—usually Robert Bosch from Germany. The sheet coextruded barrier forming material is sterilized in line using hot hydrogen peroxide applied also to the flexible closure material. Because the entire system is presterilized and maintained under positive pressure of sterile air, packaged product sterility is assured, permitting ambient-temperature shelf stability and facilitating distribution. The high capital cost of the equipment has retarded widespread application of aseptic technologies for liquid coffee whiteners in the United States.
Analogous ultra clean and aseptic systems are applied for unit-portion-size fluid milk and fruit beverage packaging to permit longer shelf life and better quality retention in distribution channels.
Each Product Has Its Own Requirements
The brief listing above merely suggests the multi–tens of billions of unit-portion-size packages of foods and beverages moving to home and foodservice outlets. The matter-of-fact treatment belies the fact that each is singular in terms of content and ultimately packaging requirements.
As we reach closer to mass customization of our food supply, food processors and packagers will increasingly apply portion packaging as a means of distribution delivery. But unit-portion packaging, however attractive to consumers, has its own protection needs that must be addressed in the perspective of the channels and consumer practices.
by AARON L. BRODY
President and CEO,
Packaging/Brody, Inc., Duluth, Ga.