Protection is the No. 1 objective of food packaging, but convenience is typically No. 3 or No. 4 on consumers’ list of needs from packaged foods. Convenience foods are often linked with an external driver—a microwave oven, toaster, automobile cup holder, coffee brewer, electric wok, waffle iron, grill, griddle, sea salt grinder, and other appliances and gadgets that can be found in a Bed Bath and Beyond retail outlet or similar stores.
We could offer a detailed enumeration of every convenience food package in our local grocery or restaurant back room to demonstrate the ubiquity of the concept. Such a list would be surprisingly historic, illustrating that food packaging such as cans of peaches, bottles of ketchup, squeeze pouches of applesauce, and flat-top milk jugs represent links on a time continuum.
Ready-to-eat, ready-to-heat-and-eat, microwave steamable, ovenable, heat-on-its-own tray, portion-sized, 100-calorie, microwavable, precut, fresh cut, precooked, easy open, reclosable, and squeezable … the list of convenience descriptors goes on and on.
Adapting for Convenience
Usually, but not always when convenience packaging is considered, the product is the same as if it were in the ordinary package. But sometimes the product has been altered to fit the convenience—for example, smaller cookies in cups to allow little hands to finger them. Or a vegetable is topped with a meltable, flowable sauce; a frozen pizza is self-rising; ice cream is topped with a fudge sauce that heats selectively to drizzle into a sundae; flavoring drops into the beverage as the cap is turned; a pita sandwich has been rolled to offer more surfaces for the microwave susceptor, and on and on.
Much more frequently, the package is the action device, i.e., flattened or dished on the base or shaped like an hour glass. Or it might be transparent on the top or feature barrier plastic bowls to foster microwave rethermalization. It could be equipped with a flip top, screw cap, or punch top. It might come with a flavored straw or in squeeze sticks or with finger-flip dispenser fitments to promote opening and drinking or pouring. Perhaps it is portable or dual ovenable or features individually compartmented potato sticks? Maybe it is flattened and portioned for quick baking or basted, par-baked, or fashioned into kebobs to quicken the final heating or cooking process.
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And then there is self-heating and self-cooling, both of which are being resurrected and rejuvenated for the consumer market. And did you miss what is almost the ultimate, the ice cream cone held in the hand that spins slowly to ensure that all points on the circumference are touched by the stationary tongue? (You can look it up. It exists, or at least it did for a fleeting 15 minutes or so.)
How Is Convenience Packaged?
This preliminary rant asserts that qualified food packaging technologists have been investing their experience and creativity in providing the widest and deepest array of means to meet the target consumers’ covert demands for time—and automatic knowledge. Who among our 300+ million Americans knows how to cook food from locavores’ scratch commodities or how to recreate Chef Prudhomme’s favorite Cajun delicacy? Despite the plethora of colorful recipe books and fun-filled magazines, most people have little time for these excitements—or fear attempting them. Food technologists, now often in concert with culinologists, generate the actual food products and some of the processes for preservation. Competent food packaging technologists link the food to the distribution channels, delivery systems, and consumers’ tables. Thus, Americans employ and enjoy convenience food to eat or dine without having had any notion at a quarter to five of what they were planning for dinner.
And so many food marketers are observing and probing American consumers for their most perplexing food preparation and eating problems and transmitting that information to their technical folks for action. Inventors are noting challenges in food consumption and coming up with devices that meet those time wasters, food wasters, energy wasters, and mind bogglers. And the food and food packaging technologists are responding.
Without realizing the food facilitators being unfurled before them, consumers are reacting. Were there more rapid takeoffs than plastic carbonated beverage bottles or microwave steamable vegetables in valved pouches or handheld hot sandwiches? But consumer reaction is not necessarily positive response: Whatever happened to pre-sliced ice cream loaves, beer in a pocket pouch, frozen microwaveable hamburgers, or soup in a bread bowl? One wonders how might eating expedience be addressed in the future?
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Solve a Consumer Problem
It has been reported that Procter & Gamble invested nine months in studying domestic floor cleaning to spark the development and introduction of its Swiffer™ product. Salient point: What problems do you see that target consumers have with specific food products? For example, ice cream was (and is) packaged in paperboard folding cartons that are difficult to reclose. The many solutions include paperboard canisters with an independent coinjection molded closure that snaps over the rolled edges of the base. There is a continuing problem, however: Removal of the product from the package is a struggle that has yet to be resolved satisfactorily. Unit portions targeted primarily to kids are offered, but why not prepackaged spherical adult unit portions? Might the next kitchen appliance be an automatic ice cream maker? Today, carbon dioxide cylinders and carbonated beverage syrup bottles; tomorrow, liquid nitrogen and ice cream mix bottles?
Are such appliance-driven concepts more convenient, more energy efficient, less wasteful of food and package materials, and more economical? Do they offer better nutritional retention? Or flavor profiles? Consider any of the kitchen operations that have been largely supplanted by prepackaged food products. Take, for example, pancakes, which are available frozen, refrigerated, and in shelf-stable form ready for toaster heating. Another option is dry mix to which various diluting agents are added to the bowl prior to griddling or dry mix in a partially filled polyethylene jar to which the target consumer adds diluting agents and shakes prior to pouring on a pre-greased, preheated flat plane. Or how about a refrigerated liquid from a plastic bottle to pour directly onto the heating surface or a liquid in a pressurized steel can that can be squirted onto the griddle? Then, of course, there is still the traditional approach of blending flour, milk, and eggs.
Does each format reflect a different consumer, situation, venue, or perception of the final product? Or are the products for eating really distinguishable to target consumers? During this era of sustainability, do we really need all these different pancake alternatives—not to mention syrups and toppings? Might we wish to compute the total system utility of each of the forms and present that information on the front of package so that consumers might decide? Or does the presence of each type in retail outlets signal that each has a market—and those of us in the food industry serve each individual consumer?
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How Convenient Might We Go?
Here is an interesting dilemma: Without citing any of the more hotly debated food issues, a relatively simple, matter-of-fact food product (i.e., pancakes) can be dissected on the basis of preparation convenience and found to be debatable. Might the eventual next step be single pieces pre-topped with butter and the target consumer’s favorite syrup? Or would that be taking convenience too far? And what actions might be taken when pancakes—as do all food products—begin to recede in popularity against the newly developed prepackaged, pre-fried egg plus bacon or prepackaged cereal with its own milk or microwaved oatmeal or pre-brewed hot coffee? Or have we already edged into that era of breakfast on the bus? Or might the variations to address all consumers in all eating situations lead to hundreds of different packages as in the product categories of balsamic vinegar and salsa? Might there be a family of packages that appear similar? And where might they be shelved? In a new section called pancakes? One called breakfast? Or might they remain scattered in the frozen, chilled, and dry categories as they are now?
We could, if we had the editorial space, review most other food products in analogous perspectives and project ourselves into tomorrow’s versions. But the randomly selected example of pancakes illustrates how convenience—which means different things to different consumers—is one of the ruling variables in today’s food tableaus.
How far might we take convenience? Technical limitations of today might slow our progress in some food products, but ultimately we will be able to deliver food products packaged for perfect preparation at the correct temperature within seconds for consumers who do not wish to be bothered or cannot prepare their favorite foods of the moment.
But ask the purists, what of those whose view is different, i.e., those who wish to grill the grass-fed beef steaks on their backyard grill or season with herbs from their own hydroponic gardens or brew their own beer or drive to their roadside farm stands for fresh produce? Who cut the steaks, ground the hamburger, baked the buns, or provided the hops from Croatia? And who will shuck the corn, shell the peas, blend the components for ice cream, or even mill the flour for the pancakes?
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Convenience is all in how the target consumer perceives it. As for us, we prefer what Clarence Birdseye and his ilk foresaw and provided: The importance of making it safe, making it good, and making it easy to access and eat. Today there is a sparkling and seemingly unending array of prepackaged convenience food products to enjoy for every eating occasion.
Aaron L. Brody, Ph.D.,
President and CEO, Packaging/Brody Inc.,
Duluth, Ga., and Adjunct Professor, University of Georgia