Safety, convenience and quality drive barrier packaging trends
By Don Rosato

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Note: This is the first article of a four part series covering barrier packaging (1) trends, (2) material advances, (3) process technologies and (4) applications.

INDUSTRY PULSE

What are the key drivers in barrier packaging?
  • 1. Adherence to food safety/quality standards
  • 2. Protection against oxygen, water vapor and aromas
  • 3. Nano-based food packaging materials
  • 4. New clear barrier materials

With an increasingly global food retailing customer base, food packaging must meet longer shelf-life requirements and adherence to international food safety/quality standards. Growing demand for convenience foods and "ready meals" created by busier lifestyles and increased disposable income are reflected in high growth in food packaging.

Changing global demographics, lifestyles and consumer preferences means global demand for food packaging — estimated to be $120 billion for 2013 — is expected to experience an average growth rate of 3.8 percent over the next five years. Of this global food packaging market, the global active, intelligent and smart food-and-drink-packaging market reached $12.1 billion last year. In addition to product protection from packaging, consumers want to see the food they buy; they want it to stay fresh for a longer period; they want it to be safe to eat; and, above all, they want it to be tasty.

Food-purchasing decisions are based on taste and appearance as well as convenience, making excellent barrier quality to maintain product freshness vital in food packaging — not only to extend shelf life, but also to protect brand image. Number one with the public is food safety, and active or barrier packaging that can help prevent spoilage or contamination is in strong demand.

Influences on food products.

Recalls can be particularly damaging to brand image and the company's bottom line. Most companies understand the added expense of improving packaging to help prevent recalls or a liability case is often far less than the cost of losing many customers because of an unhealthy or unsafe product.

Consumers want easy-to-open, see-through economic packaging that also protects against oxygen, water vapor and aromas. Nanotechnology is enabling new food and beverage packaging technologies to address the needs for longer shelf life and the ability to monitor food safety and quality based upon international standards.

Government policy and regulations are also impacting barrier plastic packaging design. The use of nano-based packaging for food products has raised various safety, environmental and regulatory issues with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S.

Packaging waste is a growing environmental concern, and consumers are seeking more sustainable packaging choices, driving food packagers to look for bioplastic materials with good barrier properties. The presence of O2-sensitive unsaturated fats are also fueling development of active and barrier packaging in flexible and rigid formats. This results from the trend toward natural/organic foods featuring heart-healthy fats.

The functional additives and barrier coatings market is expected to be worth $752 million in 2014. Barrier coatings will grow 4.6 percent annually on average, while functional additives are expected to expand at a slightly more modest 3.9 percent. The growing footprint of large retail chains in developing markets is expected to stimulate the sales of packaged food including barrier packaging.

Barrier packaging end uses.

Functional and barrier coatings cover a broad spectrum of materials that are coated onto substrates to provide a barrier of some sort to protect the materials inside, and/or to enable the substrate to act as a suitable package for its contents. Although the market is broad in scope and application, over 60 percent of the market for functional and barrier packaging covers a wide range of food stuffs. Barrier requirements for food packaging include protection against water and water vapor; oil and grease; oxygen and aroma.

Material developments and new packaging processes are allowing food to be kept fresh much longer without altering taste or aroma. While traditional barrier materials extend product shelf life by impeding O2 migration into a package, O2 scavengers go one step further "capturing" O2 present within a sealed package to ensure it does not react with the food product. By combining active and barrier packaging, processors can increase shelf life, protect flavor profiles and maintain food's appearance without adding preservatives. Antimicrobials as a coating or compounded into the plastic are helping address outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.

Functional packaging additives market.

Combinations of barrier technology and processing advances such as microwave pasteurization of chilled ready meals are resulting in unique food-product advances. Nanotechnology is also being used to enhance packaging barrier properties. New nano-based food packaging materials with improved mechanical, barrier and antimicrobial properties, and nano-sensors for traceability and monitoring food condition during transport/storage are key development areas for nanotechnology in food packaging.

Some developments are geared toward improving application properties by using active substances on the nanoscale that are incorporated into packaging materials. The use of nano-based packaging for food products has raised various safety, environmental and regulatory issues. The main concerns stem from the lack of knowledge regarding long-term effects of nano-sized materials on consumer health and the environment and the lack of definition as to what constitutes a nanomaterial.

The EFSA recently defined nanomaterial in its development of procedures for obtaining approval for use of nanomaterials in food contact applications. The FDA is also outlining a roadmap for discussion on nanotechnology. The agency has issued draft guidance for the use of nanotechnology in the food and cosmetics industries.

New clear barrier materials are being developed to replace aluminum foil and other opaque barrier materials resulting from a trend toward packaging food products in clear materials. Lightweighting in the beverage industry adds another dimension to the barrier coating challenge as thinner walls increase permeation in nonbarrier bottles.

Reduction of material in blow-molded PET containers is driven both by cost reduction (material, transportation) and by consumer demand for sustainable packaging. In Europe, there is significant latent potential for barrier PET bottles in beer, wine and specialty alcoholic beverages where penetration of these plastic bottles remains low, below 10 percent. The global functional additives and barrier coatings market for plastic packaging is expected to reach $3.7 billion by 2018.

Dr. Donald V. "Don" Rosato serves as president of PlastiSource, Inc. a prototype manufacturing, technology development and marketing advisory firm located in Concord, Mass., and is the author of the Vol 1 & 2 "Plastics Technology Handbook".