For many consumers, canned foodstuffs are a fifties stalwart - long-lasting and reliable, but a little bit dull. Unsurprising then, that with the current focus on fresh and healthy, shoppers' perception of canned products is as inferior to other convenience foods. But canned foods manufacturers are fighting back, with new shapes, convenient openings, and even alternative packaging to the traditional can.
One of the main differences to the market has been that single households in Britain have risen by 30% in the last 30 years to account for one in five of the population, and almost half of all meals are now eaten alone.
With this in mind, consumers are now less likely to want to open an entire can, and put half of it back in the fridge. In addition, the time-poor nature of shoppers opting for cans means that easy-to-open containers appeal directly to their lifestyle.
Can manufacturers have already responded with smaller cans, which offer single portions. And the now widely available ring-pull lid cans have been rolled out by many manufacturers, particularly on these smaller cans.
But it is the advent of peelable can lids that many manufacturers are hoping will make all the difference to sales when it comes to convenient openings. This new format was pioneered by metal packaging technology company Crown Holdings, whose PeelSeam lids are an extension of the widely available ring pull cans. "The peel seam uses exactly the same lid and join, but with a section knocked out of it," explains a spokeswoman from Crown.
"This is then replaced by a thin peelable section of laminated foil." Crown sees the option as ideal for the food-to-go market, and the lids are already commonly used in countries like Spain and France.
"They're very easy to use and are well suited, for example, for eating outdoors, or taking to work and just eating straight from the can," says Crown. "They've already been rolled out extensively on the Continent and we think you'll be hearing a lot about them in 2008."
Minimal modifications to kit
For Crown, one of the best aspects of the new technology is that its applications to existing systems mean minimal modifications.
"It's essentially the same lid, so it uses the same machine to seal it," says Crown. "The only minor modifications are that manufacturers need to use an over-pressure retort system for cooking in the final stages of the can, as the foil lids won't seal properly under the pressures of usual can cooking methods - but a lot of manufacturers already have this machinery."
Crown has also introduced a trademarked Easylift opening, allowing customers better access to ring-pull cans, which it believes will be of enormous benefit to elderly and less able consumers.
While easy-access lids provide a slightly more expensive way to draw in consumers, some manufacturers are looking to cut costs and take an environmentally friendly approach at the same time. Heinz, for example, has squarely addressed the single portion market with smaller cans, but it is also making a move to use less metal.
"We've already introduced a lighter, easy-open can for products such as our Heinz soups, using a thinner tinplate with up to 60% recycled steel for the can ends," says Nigel Dickie, director corporate and government affairs at Heinz. "This reduces the weight of cans, and reduces consumption of both steel and tinplate for the can end manufactured in the UK by nearly 1,400t annually. The lighter cans also reduce the overall weight of products being transported, which in turn leads to improved fuel efficiency."
"We're also making more design changes to reduce the weight and thickness of can bodies," he adds. "Once testing for strength and performance is complete, we intend to adopt the more environmentally-friendly cans in other markets where we sell canned products, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand."
But perhaps the biggest changes we're likely to see in canned food innovation is in the production of shaped cans.
"New materials mean that we can now shape metal in more or less any way you can shape plastic," says Crown. Crown has just designed a new fluted can for German soup manufacturer Stockmeyer, which wanted a can that reflected its premium offering. "You can use shaping to make cans look more interesting, but we also expect to see bowl-shaped cans make a far bigger appearance for things like ready meals.
For manufacturers considering teaming bowl-shaped cans with easy-open technology for the single portion market, there is now an even more compelling reason to do so. Bowl-shaped metal containers have just been proved microwave safe by the Fraunhofer Institute, adding yet another appealing prospect for customers looking for convenience.
Thinking outside the can
Nevertheless, some manufacturers and retailers have opted to ditch the can format altogether, hoping to lose a perception of dull food within metal packaging.
Sainsbury, for example, has recently attracted considerable media attention for its decision to replace its tinned tomatoes with Tetra Pak composite packaging. Sainsbury argues that the lighter package is better for the environment, and its move has been hailed as the 'death of the can' in the popular press.
"The launch of this type of packaging is another world first for Sainsbury, as it combines the benefits of lighter and recyclable Tetra Pak packaging with the use of Forest Stewardship Council-certified material," says packaging manager Stuart Lendrum. "We know from a recent LGA (Local Government Association) report that we've already made a lot of progress with our packaging, including a high proportion that can be recycled. But this now helps us to further reduce the weight of packaging. This will make it more efficient for us to transport to our stores, and much easier for our customers to carry home."
And while Sainsbury has only recently turned to Tetra Paks, other companies have been using alternative packaging for quite some time to appeal to consumer perception of healthy products. Examples include manufacturers of 'fresh' soups, which pasteurise them, but present them in plastic pouches for the chiller cabinet.
Plastic 'snap pots'
More recently, however, several manufacturers, including Heinz, have turned to plastic 'snap pots' as a solution to smaller portion sizing.
Consumers want single portion containers which are easy to open, and can be microwaved in the container. And while small cans with peelable lids and ring-pulls represent one solution, the new snap pots are also an attractive option, suggesting a future for light-weight containers and very small portions.
But before the death knell is sounded for canned goods, it seems that the traditional packaging solution is very far from extinct.
"Consumers have not stopped buying cans, and they continue to be a packaging form which is convenient and great value for money," says Steve Thomas, chairman of Canned Food UK, a body promoting canned foods, which lists a number of food manufacturers such as Heinz, Premier Foods and Nestlé among its members. For Thomas, it is ludicrous to suggest that packaging alternatives to cans will oust a cost-effective food packaging solution which has been around for almost two centuries.
"There might have been a lot of interest in Sainsbury's decision to change to Tetra Paks for its tomatoes, but I challenge you to go into a supermarket and see whether this is the cheapest option," says Thomas. He also disputes the so-called recyclable element of the Tetra Paks, urging consumers to look beyond the marketing.
"Just because a product can be recycled, doesn't necessarily mean much," he says. "The question is, are people recycling it? And with cans it is shown very evidently that they are. Consumers find it easy to recycle cans; they know how to do so, and they choose to do so regularly. Every year billions of cans are recycled and the figure is a key factor in helping the government meet EU targets. With something like Tetra Paks, there have been all kinds of problems with recycling points. And consumers are just not as clear about what to do with them."
Canned Food UK also hopes to demonstrate to consumers that the perception of old fashioned canned food is false.
With most of the big can producers behind the organisation, it believes the message that canned food can be high quality and healthy is starting to get through.
And with 99% of consumers buying them, canned foods have a market penetration to rival any other product. Canned foods still represent a highly convenient and cost-effective choice - and they'll be around on supermarket shelves for some time yet, claims Thomas.