The word in the food industry lately is that the humble can is on its way out – to be replaced by cartons and other packaging. But is this really the end of the road for the can, or just the next step in its evolution? Bernice Hurst finds out.

Don’t consign your cans to the tip too soon. Just as their demise is being declared, somewhat prematurely, by competitive packaging manufacturers, new variations and innovations are being introduced to the fray. The end is not yet in sight.

Within days of each other in October 2004, the Guardian in London had a headline pronouncing “Cartons Consign Tinned Food to Scrapheap” while the Washington Post countered with “Dawn of the New Can”. Food Processing magazine hedged its bets with “The End of the Age of Cans?” and a sub-heading, “But the Can Fights Back”.

From ongoing research into self-heating cans to the continuing popularity of pies such as Fray Bentos that are baked in their packaging, there is evidence that opportunities for metal packaging still exist. Hirzel’s resealable can, with a vacuum seal broken by a ring pull, is proving popular for both pizza sauce and its Italian dip product.

And Hormel, which tries to be all things to all people, followed the introduction of Tetra Brik technology for chilli products in 2004 almost immediately with a re-launch of its stock in trade, Spam. The only change in packaging for the latter is the introduction of a ring pull to replace the more lethal key.

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Sometimes it is even hard to tell what is a can and what is not. Campbell’s Soup at Hand looks like a can and has an aluminium ring-pull top but also a plastic sipping lid and body.

Second best

The obvious questions to ask when you see any supposedly fresh food in a container that extends its shelf life are: What has been done to it? How is that possible? Why does the food last longer?

Arguments rage about nutrients, quality, flavour, shelf life and convenience but most doubts arise in questions about processing methods and additives. Both the American Can Manufacturers Institute and its British equivalent, Canned Food UK, have found consumer doubts and “misperceptions” about health attributes. Although sales are still high, they have dropped in the past decade for reasons not entirely attributable to alternative options. Polls conducted in 2003 found that only 39% of Americans surveyed believed that canned food was as nutritious as fresh food. A British poll found that 97% of those surveyed considered canned food second best compared to other food options.

In response, manufacturers are trying to innovate and organisations are calling in nutritionists and trainers to create recipes, diet and exercise programmes to prove that canned foods can “make a valuable contribution to a healthy, balanced diet” as Steve Thomas, chairman of Canned Food UK puts it. Websites, too, play their part with information, advice and links that put the can’s case eloquently. Where it falls down, however, is in attempting to compare processed dishes and meals with home made alternatives. It may be reasonable to compare the vitamin and mineral content of fruit and vegetables canned in water with those boiled or cooked in salt or sugar in a home kitchen but there are too many different recipe and ingredient combinations used in both factory and home to come up with reasonable like-for-like curries or stews.

The view from Spain

When it comes to shelf life, time is important in more ways than one. While many people may check ‘best before’ days and ensure that anything past it is instantly discarded, Spanish consumers in particular may be more interested in whether the product has had sufficient time to ripen to perfection.

Pepe Iglesias, writing in Spain Gourmetour, explains that “true gourmets consider the length of time a product has spent in the can to be important. I can think of a couple of fellow enthusiasts willing and able to spend hours discussing whether a mussel is at its peak six or twenty months after canning. Eating a recently canned fillet of tuna would be a sacrilegious act: not until a year on does it achieve the proper silky texture created by the merging of the fish’s own fat content with that of the olive oil and the depth of flavour which can only develop within the confines of the can. You may find this hard to believe,” he concludes, “but it’s true.”

Since the earliest days of canning back in the 19th century, manufacturers have told us that canned fruit and vegetables, for example, are at least as healthy and nutritious as they are in their raw, natural, pure form. In addition to preserving all the natural goodness in Mother Nature’s produce come benefits from eliminating the need for all that messy, time-consuming peeling, chopping and, sometimes, cooking.

Amongst the words most frequently associated with canned foods would have to be: convenient, preservation and survival. Whether thinking in terms of cowboys and campers or housewives and newly independent singletons, canned foods solve many problems.

A question of taste

But what of taste, particularly in processed or manufactured foods? What happens when a batch of beans has salt, sugar or other flavourings and ingredients added? How can canned sausages and beans possibly taste as good as freshly grilled or baked sausages with a dollop of beans on the side, not cooked and sealed in the tomatoey, sugary, seasoned sauce? Again, the answer lies in consumer perception.

Spanish importer Brindisa has built such an audience via its London shop and stall at Borough Market that it has opened a tapas bar. Prominently and proudly featured on the menu is a whole category devoted to tinned food. Pepe Iglesias, in his Spain Gourmetour article, says what “started as a domestic activity has given rise over time to a thriving canning industry, many of whose component companies still retain a semi-artisanal character.” This, perhaps, is key to the popularity of canned foods in Spain; the perception that food is fresh and special, not mass produced, but from kitchens and companies that believe passionately in quality and the inherent excitement of what they are offering. “In Spain,” declares Iglesias, “preserved foodstuffs are not second-best alternatives to cooking but gastronomic entities in their own right…When something is genuinely special we put it in a can or jar and keep it to impress family and friends with on a special occasion.”

Herein lies another key principle. Ingredients should be canned individually or, at most, with limited complementary flavourings. Spanish canned foods, as a rule, are not cooked or manufactured dishes or meals. You may be spoiled for choice in seeking cans of the various ingredients needed for paella but considerably less impressed by offerings of ready-to-heat paella. This leaves room for the chef or cook’s flair and imagination to flourish with just a bit of help from the store cupboard.

Shelf space and recycling are hot 21st century issues in packaging but lessons learned by both can and food manufacturers over the past two centuries are not likely to be dismissed overnight. More likely they will be seen as challenges to be met in order to remain competitive and contemporary.