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Today’s consumers are hardly sedentary couch potatoes. A good fraction of our population is on-the-go, active, racing, stressed to extremes, filling health clubs and playing fields, competing, and above all (literally and figuratively) moving. Feeding this mobile mass are an array of foods and beverages engineered for consumption on the go.
Twenty years ago, how many professors or secondary school teachers would have seen, much less tolerated, bottles of water, cans of soft drinks, cups of coffee, pouches of tortilla chips, or hot pizza in their classrooms? Ten years ago, how many automobiles contained cup holders, quick-service food-tray racks, or food heaters? Many drivers today eat and drink breakfast as they commute to work. The three-martini lunch has receded in the onslaught of the standup working lunch with sandwiches, sauces from unit-portion pouches, salads dressed with sauces from plastic pouches, and plastic drink bottles. The fastest-growing trend in food is not nutrition or natural or organic or ethnic, but rather on-the-go consumption.
Recognizing this trend, companies around the world are marketing foods and beverages designed for on-the-go consumption in packaging engineered far beyond the basic objective of protection during distribution. The contained products must be more than edible—they must also be delicious and satisfying; the contents must be easy to access with one hand; and the package must be easy to close and reopen and discardable without upsetting the solid-waste stream.
In the "good old days," a chocolate bar, a pouch of sugar shell–coated chocolate pieces, a roll of pressed sugar candy, and a can of carbonated beverage with an easy-open pull top were the standards for eating while in motion. More recently, the take-away food of quick-service restaurants—wrapped hamburgers and tacos, paperboard cups of chicken nuggets or French fried potatoes, beaded polystyrene drink cups, and corrugated fiberboard boxes of pizza—represented on-the-go eating.
Long before the turn of the millennium, food packagers had begun to address the challenge of the on-the-go generation. One might ponder whether the original product/packaging solutions preceded the latent demand, or overt demand triggered the solutions. And one might further ask if the solutions are not more costly than the original food/drink/packaging in larger portions not so easy to access—or if the on-the-go packaging is not more costly than the contained food. One cannot, however, question that the value perceived by the consumer using these systems is clearly present.
There are many types of on-the-go foods and beverages:
• Water. Perhaps the most ubiquitous on-the-go product is water in polyester bottles, virtually the essence of portability. Boasting spouts that open and close with a twist of the hand or the front teeth, and handles that fit on the belt or the bicycle bar or in the back pocket, these transparent, almost unbreakable bottles are part of the flow of America. And almost very bottle is engineered to fit into the beverage cup carriers in vehicles and on treadmills and stair climbers.
For the more daring, water also has been offered in collapsible flexible pouches shaped like bottles, pressurized cans to permit the consumer to spray the liquid onto the face for cooling or into the mouth to allay thirst, and in plastic cups with peel-off lidding that simulate the old-fashioned glass of water.
• Juices and Other Beverages. Although the aluminum can (stiffened by internal liquid nitrogen injection) is hardly uncommon for fruit beverage packaging, it lacks the reclosure feature desired by many consumers.
Filling this gap is the aluminum bottle with its screw-cap reclosure (and associated larger size to offer more beverage for the can cost). But plastic has been making inroads in this large and growing category. Suffering from a paucity of oxygen-barrier properties in the surface-to-content volumes of unit-portion-size beverage containers, monolayer polyester bottles are being enhanced with barrier and even oxygen scavenger to overcome the problem. Multilayer barrier plastic bottles with easy-open and -reclose features have reached a lofty position in packaging of fruit beverages and have spawned a whole new era of flavored milks in take-along bottles.
The quick-open, wide-mouth, quick-drinking polyester bottle closure for isotonic beverages is the epitome of on-the-go packaging. For the less-vigorous among the target populations is the multiplicity of offerings of brewed tea ready for consumption out of polyester bottles with easy-open and -reclose features.
And, of course, there are the ubiquitous Tetra Pak cartons with their sipping straws for kids.
• Soups. A mainstay of industrialized society’s fare is soup. A conglomeration of many different ingredients and usually intended to be eaten hot, soup has been presented in many formats, with the canned condensed, canned single-strength, dry ramen, and relatives battling for the stomachs of consumers. Ramen soups in beaded polystyrene cups, to which microwave-heated water is added to reconstitute, were previously the choice for soup, but now Campbell Soup Co.’s inexpensive, quick, and easy new sipping version is taking center stage in the competition.
To accommodate the trend to eating on the go, Campbell engineered a totally new concept that permits vehicle drivers and/or passengers to sip hot soup directly from the can. The barrier plastic can may have been derived from the bucket can but is more cylindrical to fit the automobile cup holder. Double-seam-closed, the ambient-temperature shelf-stable retort can is fitted with an oversized skirted overcap with an opening through which the hot soup may be sipped.
Consumers are instructed to remove the metal end, replace the overcap, heat briefly in a microwave oven, remove the container from the microwave oven by grasping the full-body expanded-polystyrene label that functions as a thermal insulator, and consume the product. By implication, the consumer may eat the soup at or near the microwave oven or carry the hot soup to the car and sip single-handedly as he or she meanders the roadways.
To fit through the comparatively small orifice in the overcap, the soups were reformulated with smaller particulates, an example of product change to fit the package.
• Semi-solids. What more spectacular product introduction has there been than squeezable yogurt early in this decade? Years in development, yogurt in a flexible tube sparked not only more flavors of yogurt but also a stampede to package other fluid/semi-solid foods in squeezable tubes to fill the mouths and stomachs of the younger youth of the world. Perhaps a derivative of fruit-flavored frozen liquid sticks, squeezable pudding in both chilled and ambient-temperature-stable formats sprang into the marketplace. Aseptically packaged tubed applesauce appeared and receded as the target market did not flock to the concept as it had to eating applesauce from unit-portion barrier-plastic cups a generation earlier.
Almost by extrapolation, the squeezable tube begat the toothpaste tube for peanut butter and for the convenience of squeezing onto bread for the on-the-run sandwich-making. Just when we thought that presliced peanut butter to slap onto bread was America’s greatest contribution in this area, along came parallel tubes of peanut butter and jelly to simultaneously slather on bread. And the ultimate for kids: prefabricated peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crusts removed.
• Confectionery. Highly flavored pressed and extruded pop-in-the-mouth-and-suck sugar candies are being sold in "tins," two-piece pocket-size steel cans. Lollypops were last generation’s portable sugar candy.
And sugar shell–coated chewing gum is being packaged in slide-out blister packaging. Each unit is individually packaged to protect it even while in pocket or pocketbook. And sugar shell–coated chocolate candies are being sold in injection-molded polypropylene tubes with easy snap-open and -close caps—just right for the under-six crowd, with candy sized just for them.
Related to sugar candy are the new breath freshener strips, which might be the epitome of pocket or pocketbook portable. As small as a postage stamp, these plastic devices contain a stack of dissolvable strips saturated with flavor, each designed to be slipped from the holder and placed on the tongue to refresh the mouth while on the run to a date or meeting.
• Low-Water-Activity Snacks. Difficult to classify are cheese sticks—logs of cheese snacks in individual thermoform/vacuum-seal flexible packages. The consumer peels a tab of the top lidding and removes the cheese stick from the cavity.
Processed meat sticks and jerky, descended from the pemmican of Lewis and Clark’s journey of exploration, are packaged under greatly reduced oxygen content to retard rancidity and retain color. Jerky represents the largest application of oxygen scavenger in the world.
Fruit leathers, very low-water-activity chewy fruit, are packaged in a variety of formats to enable young consumers to instantly reach for a strip and chew with delight. Obviously, moisture barrier packaging is mandatory.
• Vegetables. Fresh-cut salad vegetables are transitioning from "bagged" to packaging that is engineered as both distribution protection and eating device. Carrot and/or celery sticks in one compartment and dip in another of a pocket- or lunchbox-size thermoformed plastic tray are snack fare for those who favor the allegedly "healthier" route. Kin to the dipping veggie kit are the cookie stick and cracker topping kits.
Larger is the relatively recent salad bowl for one—the main thermoformed polyester base contains the cut lettuce, and a compartmented thermformed polyester insert resting atop the base contains dressings, toppings, and even meat accompaniments. Engineering an easy-peel, air-permeable flexible lidding to be heat sealed to the bowl rim has been a technical accomplishment.
Is cottage cheese in one thermoformed compartment and fruit in an adjacent compartment an example of on-the-go packaging? Perhaps because the object is to pour the fruit into the cheese, it is more representative of a rest between movements. How about yogurt in one compartment and chopped nuts in the other? Or drinkable yogurt?
Several companies have tried to marry cereal and milk to meet the long-articulated desire of many hurried consumers for breakfast on the run. My guess is that the breakfast cereal bar containing dry milk fills the need better than the mix-in-the-package/bowl, eat-and-go version.
• Cookies and Such. In the dry sweet baked goods categories, the traditional jumble-packed bag-in-box cartons are being complemented by injection-molded high-density-polyethylene cups with narrow bases that fit into automobile and baby stroller cup holders. Consumers peel back the flexible lidding, remove the cookies from the cup, and close the container with the plastic overcap until the next use. Although often bearing brands that are household names, the contents resemble but are not quite the same as the original products, which do not fit in the cups. Thus were developed mini versions of the traditional chocolate chip, sandwich, and vanilla cookies that would fit both the car cup holder and the consumers’ perception of the original without upsetting the consumer’s brand loyalties.
There are also infant crackers and cookies in plastic canisters into which the child’s hand can reach to extract the munchies. And let’s not overlook the new 100-calorie flexible pouches of cookies and crackers.
• Salty Snacks. Long packed in tall composite paperboard canisters, salty snacks are rapidly moving to plastic canisters and other shapes and sizes engineered to fit the car beverage cup holder. Because some of the extrusion-blow-molded barrier canisters are too tall for "hand dipping," the top reclosures are cups themselves, encouraging the on-the-move consumer to pour the chips into the shallower cups for immediate retrieval. And then there are the shaped chips that have entered into shaped thermoforms in unit-portion sizes. And for those mobile consumers who must dip their chips, there are the combination thermoforms with chips in one compartment and salsa or sour cream in the other.
• Tuna and Chicken. While most observers might not regard retort pouches as on-the-go packaging, many consumers have recognized that the absence of liquid in the pouches results in chicken or tuna chunks that are simultaneously moist and easy to pick up with fingers. And retort pouch condiment/cracker kits are available for those with a few seconds more to "prepare" a sandwich for immediate consumption.
Technology and Imagination
The hot dog and the ice cream cone were progenitors of a much broader range of on-the-go products. The obviously truncated enumeration of newer on-the-go products has highlighted some of the intriguing innovations in food delivery, triggered on the one side by consumers and on the other by the food marketing, food science, and packaging technical communities to fulfill consumers’ expectations. These products suggest that the technologies involved do not rest solely in food science or packaging technology, but in the thoughtful integration of all of the relevant elements—with a heavy dash of imagination.
by AARON L. BRODY
President and CEO,
Packaging/Brody, Inc., Duluth, Ga.