Kraft has used pouch packaging for confectionery lines in the UK, including Twirl Bites

Kraft has used pouch packaging for confectionery lines in the UK, including Twirl Bites

First developed as a method of storing provisions by the US military, pouches are becoming a common feature across the global food industry. Products such as retort pouches - heat-resistant bags usually made from laminated plastic films and then heat-sealed and sterilised by pressure cooking - have encroached upon the territory of more traditional packaging such as metal cans during the last decade. Jonathan Thomas reports.

Retort pouches first appeared in the food industry in the late 1990s, when Mars Inc used them for pet foods. Since then, the range of applications has spread to areas such as soups, sauces, baby foods and ready meals. Meanwhile, pouch-style packaging is also gaining favour in the confectionery and savoury snacks sectors, largely in response to growing consumer demand for products suitable for sharing.

According to the US-based Allied Development Corporation, consumption of retort pouches by the world food and drinks industry rose from around 10bn units in 2006 to 19bn units in 2011. Industry experts believe global demand is increasing by up to 10% per annum.

However, the picture is not entirely rosy. Within the last year, Mathijs Preenen, marketing manager for LPF Flexible Packaging, claimed the UK market for retort pouches was approaching saturation point. Furthermore, there have been product failures - notably Arla Foods' Arla Squeeze, yoghurt packaged in a squeezable pouch and targeted at children. This was withdrawn after less than a year at the end of 2011 following disappointing sales.

Compared with other forms of packaging, retort pouches offer advantages such as improved portability, recloseability and heightened aesthetic appeal. Furthermore, many forms of pouch packaging can be heated in the microwave, which adds to their convenient nature by dispensing with the need for cooking utensils.

Demand for pouches within the food industry has also risen because their lighter weight means they frequently represent a more environmentally-friendly packaging option. According to the US baby foods manufacturer Sprout, packaging accounts for just 6% of the total weight of its products when a retort pouch is used. This rises to 14% for a rigid tray and a sizeable 70% for glass jars.

Applications

The emergence of the pouch format has aided sales of ambient and chilled soup in many parts of the world. In Ireland, for example, pouches account for between 15% and 20% of the soup market, although they still trail packet and instant varieties. Unilever's Knorr brand accounts for 55% of the pouch sector, encompassing its Special Recipe and Organic ranges.

Another soup manufacturer which now uses pouches as a packaging option is Campbell Soup Co. Its Go! Soup range, which is packaged in a microwaveable plastic pouch, is set to debut later in 2012. According to John Faulkner, Campbell's director of brand communications, Go! Soup is targeted at "millennial" consumers, aged between their late teens and early 30s, who frequently shun traditional tinned soup.

"Canned foods are perceived negatively [by this age group]," says Faulkner. "We need to remove that barrier."

Elsewhere, pouches are used for the Loyd Grossman range of soups and cooking sauces owned by Premier Foods plc. Elliott Harris, brand manager for Loyd Grossman, says: "The innovative single-serve pouch format has proved very popular amongst consumers."

In 2010, the sauces range was extended with single-serve pasta cooking sauces named Loyd Grossman For One. Packaged in microwaveable 150g pouches, varieties included Tomato & Chilli and Carbonara. Sales have since risen to GBP2.5m (US$3.9m) per annum, and the brand accounts for 16% of the market for Italian cooking sauces packaged in pouches. In June 2012, the range was further extended with a Classic Beef Bolognese flavour.

Pouch-style packaging has also found favour within the ready meals and frozen foods sectors, largely on account of its lightweight and convenient nature. Findus-branded frozen ready meals have appeared across Western Europe packaged in resealable pouch-style bags. These claim to be up to 80% lighter than the previous packaging format.

Meanwhile, Heinz now sells Ore-Ida potato products - examples of which include Hash Browns and French Fries - packaged in stand-up plastic pouches in the US. This reduces the amount of packaging material used by 15%.

Pouches for sharing occasions

Demand for stand-up pouches has also benefited from a major trend driving the confectionery and snack food markets. With the economic downturn still biting in many parts of the world, people are increasingly inclined to spend more time at home, socialising with family and friends. This in turn has increased demand for packaging geared towards sharing occasions, of which pouches are one such example.

This trend can be best illustrated by the extension of many of the UK's leading confectionery brands into the bite-sized sector. Currently worth over GBP300m, the market for bite-sized chocolate confectionery (many varieties of which are packaged in pouches and bags) is growing by nearly 10% per annum, and represents one of the most dynamic sectors of the UK confectionery industry.

Leading brands which now feature in the UK bite-sized confectionery market include Aero, KitKat and Rolo from Nestlé, as well as Wispa, Twirl and Crunchie from Kraft Foods. This trend has also been apparent in the US, where Hershey launched bite-sized chocolate drops in resealable pouches early in 2011.

Pouches - the next generation?

As the market develops, innovations continue to appear in response to consumer demand for ever more sophisticated packaging. One such example has been the "spouch", which is due for launch in the UK by Ella's Kitchen in June 2012. Ella's Kitchen has played a major role in bringing pouches to the UK baby foods market, another sector where pouch-style packaging has gained ground in recent years.

According to Ella's Kitchen, the "spouch" (which is to be used for its new organic baby cereals range) combines a pouch with a spout for ease of pouring and no spillage, as well as being resealable. Spouts have also featured in other sectors of the food industry - for example, Heinz has recently developed a new pouch featuring a recloseable cap and spout for its tomato ketchup.

This area seems likely to underpin innovation efforts for the foreseeable future. In the US, for example, a new stand-up pouch featuring a zipper which goes all the way round the opening has been developed. The opening in the pouch is large enough to eat from, while the zipper creates a pour spout when closed halfway. Potential areas of application range from biscuits and snacks to frozen foods, and it is innovation such as this that will help to maintain market growth over the coming years.