As a rule, any food packaging material must never cause adverse reactions with the food material it contains. Some metals are known to cause toxicity in food when used as packaging material. Others catalyze some oxidation reactions within the food.
Plastics on the other hand pose the risk of migration of low molecular weight toxic substances (e.g. polyethylene terephthalates or PET) from the packaging material into the food. Also, disposal of plastics is a global challenge due to their non-biodegradable nature.
Basic functions of a food packaging material:
- Contain the food
- Preserve food quality by protecting the food against physical and biochemical changes. In essence, the material should be an effective barrier against water, air, light and aromatic materials as necessary.
- The material should be an effective marketing tool.
- It should also provide convenience of use to the consumer.
When choosing an appropriate packaging material to use, consider the following food-based changes that will need preservation against deterioration.
- Gain/loss of moisture
- Lipid oxidation
- Enzymatic degradation
- Non-enzymatic browning
- Microbial growth
- Nutrient loss
- Changes in color or flavor
You should consider the environmental reactions associated with the food packaging material you have chosen.
For instance, you should consider interactions between the food product and the internal environment, the food and the external environment and the interactions between the food product and the packaging material.
The food packaging material should be chemically inert.
The material should be strong enough to ensure the integrity of the food quality is assured.
The following intrinsic parameters determine the strength of food packaging materials
- This parameter measures the maximum amount of stress a material can withstand.
- Measures resistance to compressional forces.
Impact strength resistance
- This is used to gauge the strength of resistance offered by the food packaging material to shock loading.
- Measures the resistance of the food packaging material to tearing or cracking.
- Measures resistance to distortion; especially for plastics.
Measures resistance of the food packaging material to continuous creasing.
Other extrinsic factors that may influence the choice of a packaging material include:
Necessity, consumer perception, and convenience
- Choose a stronger material, probably one that can be re-heated in case of frozen products. Use food grade plastic to avoid contamination of the food.
- Use a packaging material that enhances acceptability of the product you are trying to sell. You can achieve this by using a transparent material to allow people to see and judge the product they are about to purchase.
- Use a packaging material that the consumer can use without worrying about spillage.
Cost and availability of the material
- As a food manufacturer, you are juggling with providing high quality food and product affordability. Choose a packaging material that will not overrun your overheads.
- Most packaging material manufacturers prefer bulk orders. If your company cannot afford to put large orders (yet), choose the next best alternative that will still allow you to make a tidy profit.
- You must always remember that customers associate high-end packaging with premium quality. Stay on top of the game by using high quality and durable packaging materials.
- Whatever packaging material you decide to use, make sure it will be available throughout the year. This will help you plan production in a profitable manner.
- As a food manufacturer, you are concerned with the quality of the product you are releasing into the market. You want the customers to receive it in the best possible condition.
- To avoid damages during transit, you should use a packaging material that will not burst under pressure or cave in. The container should have very high level of integrity to maintain the quality of the product on its way to the market.
- It should be impervious to avoid absorption of foreign flavor, which will reduce product acceptability.
- Use a packaging material with a tamper proofing capability. This will let the consumer know when the product has been interfered with.
Environmental friendliness and government regulations
- Consumers tend to be loyal to companies that show concern for the environment. Use a packaging material that does not load the environment by adding greenhouse gases at any point in their life cycle (if possible).
- Use biodegradable or recyclable packaging materials for your products.
- Make sure to abide by the regulations of the country in which you are running your business. Some countries have banned the use of plastic materials.
The distribution chain
- Involves the environment in which the product is used and how the final consumer gets the product. Choose a packaging material that will not be affected by the local climate.
- For instance, using plastic packaging material in extremely high temperature zones may pose a health risk to the consumer due to contamination by the plastics.
- Assess the amount of handling required for a particular distribution chain and assign a packaging material that will assure product integrity by the time the product reaches the final consumer.
- Do not use rigid packaging materials for products that require multiple handlers.
Branding and marketing
- Use brand-able packaging materials to make them more appealing to the consumers. Again, the packaging material you choose to use should be shelf-ready, i.e. it should stack readily in an appealing fashion in the shelves.
- Always make sure your brand remains consistent because consumers love the consistency. They believe in the integrity of a product presented in a consistent packaging material.
- Choose a packaging material that will enhance the efficiency of your packaging plant. Use a material that is compatible with the machinery you have in place.
- As a manufacturer, you need to contract a packaging material supplier who understands your needs. The supplier should have above board customer service skills and attend to your emergencies promptly.
Some of the best food packaging solutions:
Food packaging industry has undergone massive shift in the recent past. Several packaging materials are now available at a fraction of the cost of the traditional packaging materials.
More technologically advanced packaging materials are still being developed. Nanocomposites and intelligent packaging solutions have been prototyped. These can detect any undesirable change in the food and alert the consumer about an expired product.
Researchers are still working on the cost effectiveness of these new solutions to test the efficacy of rolling them out for mass adoption. Until that is done, we are going to use the available means of packaging.
Some of the most commonly used solutions include:
- Metallic packaging materials have been around for as long as I can remember. They are strong, durable, reusable, and environmentally friendly.
- Despite their bulkiness, they are among the best food packaging materials available out there. Metallic packaging materials can facilitate post packaging processing (retort pasteurization) of foods, which enhances food safety.
- Metals are also easy to handle, brand, and stack in the shelves.
- However, metallic packaging materials can be quite expensive. This may lead to a marked up cost of the product to recover the packaging cost.
- Owing to its inert nature, glass is one of the safest packaging material (as far as food safety is concerned). Its clarity makes it attractive because the consumer can see the product in the container without any hindrance.
- Glass is durable, reusable, and easy to clean.
- However, they are very brittle and can break hence need cautious handling to avoid spillage of the contents. Glass is also bulky, which may increase its handling costs.
- Polythene is one of the most widely used packaging materials. It is cheap and easy to use. It can also be molded into the desired form by the manufacturer.
- Plastics can be opaque, translucent, or transparent. This gives it the desired variety of choice when considering a given food sample's packaging needs.
- Plastics are also reusable and recyclable depending on the density under consideration.
- However, certain plastics have been associated with poisoning and food contamination. Low density plastics are an environmental menace all over the world and governments are taking decisive action to even ban plastic use.
- Paper is also very widely used. In fact, it is almost always used together with the other packaging solutions in form of cartons/cardboard boxes.
- Paper is environmentally friendly, locally available, cheap, and reusable.
- Advancement in technology has made it possible for people to use paper cups for holding liquids.