90 year birthday special

Packaging: it's about much more than food protection

By Chris Waterhouse

- Last updated on GMT

Cans, originally developed in the early 19th century, are still used today as an effective packaging for food and drink
Cans, originally developed in the early 19th century, are still used today as an effective packaging for food and drink

Related tags: Food packaging, Packaging

The past 90 years have seen food and drink packaging innovation driven by economic and societal change.

Outbreak of war has frequently promoted innovation in packaging, both in solutions and materials. Ninety years ago, foods were largely purchased fresh, daily, and by weight and only high value or imported items were delivered ‘packaged’.

While ‘plastic’ had been developed in the 1800s, the earliest use as food packaging was only prompted by military necessity in the same way as canning technologies. Innovation in lining compounds, despite the health impact of heavy metals, increased preservation levels and nutritional values.

As such, metal cans were intensively used for packaging food rations for soldiers on the front line, eg ‘bully’ beef.

The growing need for ‘convenience’ spawned many new packaging innovations. The 1940s and ’50s family unit; male breadwinner, housewife, and 2.4 children was changing.

With women increasingly working, new packaging became necessary. One example, milk deliveries in the glass bottle with a simple foil top, while still available today, have morphed through the development of the Tetra Pak in the ’50s to today’s polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate packs.

Further developments such as induction seals and material light-weighting have provided advantages in product quality, shelf-life extension, material use and cost reductions. Long-life versions now make it viable to buy milk as part of a single supermarket shop.

The ’60s saw the development of some key formats: frozen foods with the wider availability of freezers and the ready meal phenomenon.

Better film and laminate technologies

Aluminium foil coupled with the development of ever better film and laminate technologies gave us the ‘TV dinner’. 

Simply re-heated in the oven, this was a revolution for busy, working households. The growth in freezer ownership provided capability for the busy family to pre-cook in bulk, freeze and reheat.

Ongoing material innovations have created multiple packaging options for ready meals. There has been the move to vacuum-formed trays, with heat-sealed specialised lidding materials introduced in the ’80s, and modified atmosphere packs for extended storage, followed the advent of microwave cooking.

Today, ‘fresh’ ready meals with pre-prepared veggies, rice and so forth packed in stand-up steam cooking bags, meat packaged and cooked in a flow or vacuum packed, and nylon-based roasting packs, all support the convenience ethos.

Of course, some of the biggest developments have been to increase shelf-life and reduced waste. The development of modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) was a direct response to the expectations of customers in the supermarket. 

Pre-packed meat, selected by the consumer, the cut of meat, rejecting those less appealing through colour, fat, etc.

The introduction of MAP allowed retailers to create the optimal packaged environment, and subsequently the introduction of desiccants and scavengers have all increased product shelf-life.

Now, pre-prepared salad-in-a-bag products have brought MAP into the fresh fruit and vegetable arena with new introductions of ‘eat-one, keep-one’ packs, now also seen in snacks, all in response to customer convenience requirements delivered through a single weekly shop.

Digital world of smart packaging

Some of the most evident of innovations of recent years have been driven by print and the digital world of smart packaging.

Demand for choice in retail, but cost effectively, drives advances in the technology. With the emergence of the Internet of Things and integration of new technologies, food packaging is expanding from its original need to ‘protect, preserve, promote’.

Incorporating digital technologies into packaging supports the growing need to deliver customised media: coupons, recipes, etc, all accessed via the obligatory smartphone.

Similarly, advances in smart technology – thermochromic inks, near-field communication, radio frequency identification and others – allow for increased connectivity and safety messaging.

This mass integration provides benefits for retailers: stock control, rotation and so forth; and for consumers: automatic re-ordering via connectivity with ‘smart’ fridges and similar technologies.

In the same way, print has revolutionised the offer. Personalised packaging, or unique one-off designs provide differentiation. The power of digital printing has also created an environment for growth in ‘artisanal’ start-ups.

So, where will we be in 90 years’ time? One thing is for sure, packaging will still be required. At the end of the day, packaging delivers what the consumer demands. Long may that remain!

Chris Waterhouse is chairman of the Packaging Society, a division of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining; and md of iDi Pac.

Key milestones 1981–2000

  • Microprocessor control systems adopted more widely
  • Food Safety Act 1990
  • Expansion of the chilled food sector
  • Mycoprotein (Quorn) introduced 1985
  • European Food Safety Inspection Service (EFSIS) Standard 1995
  • British Retail Consortium (BRC) Standard 1999
  • Food Standards Agency established 2000
  • 67% microwave oven ownership
  • Campden & Chorleywood Research Association 1995

Related topics: Ambient foods, Packaging materials

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