Value equals benefits divided by costs compared with competition. So stated friend and colleague Mike Richmond at the most recent Aaron Brody Distinguished Lectureship on Food Packaging delivered at Michigan State University School of Packaging in May. Now a Vice President with Packaging and Technology Solutions, a division of HAVI Global Solutions Direct LLC, Richmond ([email protected]) offered profound insights into the present and future of food packaging from a sound foundation of 30 years of personal and professional experience plus research into technical and marketing trends extending well beyond our time horizon.
Because packaging provides so many benefits, it is a key trends enabler for all in the food community. Consumers (now clusters of individuals), distribution channels, food companies, and the packaging value chain have changed. Science and technology are in an exponential growth mode, and food preservation and packaging engineering and design are now necessarily part of the all-embracing holistic approach to packaging.
Food packaging delivers both real and perceived benefits, which include the following.
• Protection. This is the primary function of packaging against an ever hostile natural environment. Without this functionality, people could not safely satisfy their nutritional needs, and we would not have access to the wide array of safe, high quality food now available to us.
• Freshness. Integrating refrigeration, time control, minimal processing, controlled atmospheres, and extended shelf life, packaging allows us access to produce from faraway places on an everyday basis.
• Sensory appeal. Absent of this critical criterion, what might we eat?
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• Portability. We live in an era of grab-and-go eating—in the car, squeezing cheese from a polyester bottle, and ready-made crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for kids’ lunches.
• Convenience. Who would have predicted 10 years ago that coffee makers that brew immediately from single-serving packages of roasted and ground coffee would actively populate the kitchen counters in so many American homes?
• Differentiation. Could you have imagined that more than 50 flavors of coffee or a hundred salsas, olive oils, or balsamic vinegars, or 200 pasta sauces are all somehow singularly visible on store shelves?
• New and improved performance. Microwave steaming of frozen vegetables in the package, microwave-popped popcorn in a bowl for sharing, in-your-car hot soup, chewing gum in single-cavity slide trays … the list of food products that are better because of innovation in packaging goes on and on.
• Time saving. No need to read this line since time is precious, and we in food packaging have clearly demonstrated our ability to save preparation and clean-up time for chefs, cooks, and consumers.
• Channel growth. In spite of the headlines, quick-service and its ancestral granddaddy, foodservice, continue to expand; box and convenience stores abound; supermarkets are more super than ever; ethnic groceries are ubiquitous; and the now larger trucks, air cargo, rail cars, and ships roll day and night carrying food to consumers in palletized corrugated cases, shrink film, and reusable plastic containers.
• Communication. In addition to presenting reading material to kids at breakfast tables, food packages print the ingredients, origins, nutritional attributes, instructions, and cautions, all in a small space in multiple languages to accommodate our multi-ethnic society. And with increasing frequency, they’ll be electronically linking to consumers’ smartphones.
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• Relevance. Remember grandma’s cookies and noodles? Or picking strawberries in the field? Or mom’s mac and cheese? Or dad’s grilled burgers? Or ice cream cones? Or cotton candy? Or reading about our ancestral pho? Food is not just eating for fuel, it is a social experience. It is fun and pleasure and emotional fulfillment—partially presented by the packaging and partially by the food product itself.
• Esteem. Far be it from us food packaging technologists not to be awed by the Starbucks experience. There we pay 10 times the amount that we pay for pot-brewed coffee and five times as much as for a unit-portion cup for the total Starbucks package, which may include reading The New York Times while enjoying a grande latte.
• Equity enhancement. What do you think would be the value of Coca-Cola or PepsiCo brands and imagery without the unique bottle shapes, distinctive colors, trade dress, and brand logos that derive their universality from their packages?
And what is the competition in the value equation above? It includes all other packaged and minimally packaged foods and all other products that the target consumer can readily substitute for yours. So these are among the reasons that packaging is so critical to a food processor’s success.
Superior understanding of the packaging value chain is important, emphasizes Richmond, who, not incidentally, was elected to the Packaging Hall of Fame co-located at Michigan State University School of Packaging. Manufacturing, service, research, design, marketing, suppliers, channels, and, of course, consumers are all teamed in this intricate new matrix that adds value in each link of the network.
Packaging as a Trends Enabler
When the product moves, so also does the packaging—or is it the reverse? Or do they move together in lockstep? In this period of reducing corporate staffing or investment in the future, food packaging has emerged not as merely the protection and essentials’ communicator, but as the pivot upon which food product growth is predicated: the launch pad that sparks the processing and marketing progress. Without the packaging, how else might we be implementing ultra high pressure processing or retortable cartons or microwave pasteurization and sterilization or controlled atmosphere extended shelf life for minimally processed foods? Here’s a look at some of the key trend areas that packaging enables.
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• Nutrition. Retention of the biological value of foods is axiomatic. It is now accomplished through the barrier of packaging and portion control inextricably linked with distribution control.
• Flavor. Barrier helps retain taste, aroma, and masticatory properties, and retards oxidation; semi-permeable membranes control respiration; transparency without fogging suggests freshness. And now flavor devices and packets can enhance the desirable characteristics of the contained food.
• Convenience. The milk Chug package revolutionized extended shelf life and flavored milk 20 years ago. The 100-calorie multi-pack did the same for snacks and bakery goods 10 years ago. The reusable plastic canister changed the shelf life for sugar five years ago. And today, Heinz Dip & Squeeze single-serve ketchup is altering foodservice condiments.
• Value. In addition to national brands and dominant products, consumers have the choice of private label products, which are usually a less expensive alternative but also often deliver quality that exceeds that of the household names. Richmond asserts that matching product to package has become the norm. For example, way back when margarine was offered in spreadable form, the revolutionary advance was the introduction of margarine in reclosable tubs—a revolution of the 1960s. Other notable packaging developments include shredded cheese in zipper and slide pouches and inverted bottles to dispense products such as mustard, spreads, and syrups.
• Variety. Although most wine seems to be packaged exactly alike in narrow-neck glass bottles, alternatives exist, and are appearing in the marketplace. They include the Tetra Brik Prisma, bag-in-box, nitrogen-balanced aluminum cans, widemouth aluminum bottles with a screw cap used for FLASQ™ wine, and unit-portion flexible pouches.
• Fun. Cereal boxes are competing with lunch kits, thermochromic graphics are featured on beer cans and soft drink bottles, there is a write-on date option for beer bottles, and candy novelty pack-ages deliver added value for kids.
• Time. Packaging might be synonymous with time containment. Packaging features can facilitate ease of preparation and serving and package disposal.
• Affordable luxury. Packaging can help convey upscale imagery, enabling products to offer a higher emotional experience.
• Security and authenticity. This functionality is a critical benefit of packaging. Tamper-resistant and tamper-evident packaging helps keep consumers secure and ensures that unauthorized product “sampling” does not take place before the product reaches the consumer.
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• Quality. The graphics and form of the food package can help to convey messages about product quality.
• Sustainability and the environment. Richmond points out that the concept of sustainability was unknown 10 years ago. Today it is one watchword for packaging after safety, protection, and quality retention. Notions of biomaterials reside in “plant-based” plastic bottles. Compostability is the key to the rise of polylactic acid (PLA) as a polystyrene and polyester substitute. Photodegradability has been incorporated into polyethylene for some years. Paperboard has been recycled for more than a century, but the infrastructure for recycling paperboard has expanded in recent years and will accelerate. Aluminum and steel are among the most recycled of package materials. And reusable plastic in distribution channels is a major growth sector.
Holistic package engineering and design are the future, according to Richmond. He concluded that all components of food packaging are to be leveraged to ensure the efficient delivery of safe and high quality food: technology, innovation, shelf impact, shape, total sensory attributes, color, economics, sustainability, image, and, of course, protection throughout the system.
There is no longer a mass consumer or single distribution channel, and we are adjusting our food organization and methods to reach many target audiences by applying our rapidly expanding knowledge of them and our own food packaging science and technologies.
Aaron L. Brody, Ph.D.,
President and CEO, Packaging/Brody Inc., Duluth, Ga., and Adjunct Professor, University of Georgia