Increasingly demanding requirements from food manufacturers and their consumers mean that packaging is becoming progressively ‘smarter’. Active or intelligent packaging is a sector which continues to grow in size, with expansion driven by new applications and innovation. Jonathan Thomas reports.

Many areas of the global food industry now feature active and intelligent packaging. Although this covers a multitude of different areas, the sector is best described as a specific type of packaging capable of controlling or reacting to what is going on inside the container. Active/intelligent packaging offers numerous benefits, ranging from extending the shelf-life of certain products to controlling temperature and moisture levels inside containers.

Most estimates agree that the active and intelligent packaging sector is growing in size. According to data from BCC Research, the global active and intelligent packaging market rose from US$6bn in 2008 to US$7.6bn in 2011, with a figure of US$8.7bn forecast for 2013. If a broader definition incorporating other forms of controlled packaging is used, global market value increases to nearer US$20bn. Some of the world’s largest markets include the US, Japan, the UK, Germany and Australia.

Although the active and intelligent sector still accounts for just 2% of the global packaging market at present, further growth in market value is expected. According to a spokesperson from LINPAC Packaging, this is due to “the convenience trend, the need to extent shelf-life and reduction of waste”. The market is also set to benefit from growing concerns over food safety, with more legislation expected in this area.

Although some sources feel the active/intelligent packaging market will grow by up to 8% per annum over the coming years, most of the further development within the sector is expected to come from refinements of existing products, rather than any major innovations. It should also be noted that further market growth will depend heavily on the global food industry, which is currently faced with static consumption and stagnating real incomes.

“Retailers have [to date] been reluctant to introduce active packaging more widely either for cost reasons… or because fillers and packers found the investment costs too high,” Linpac Packaging explains.

One area where future demand is likely to increase is the fresh produce sector, since packaging of fruit and vegetables is moving from traditional paper bags to polymer-based varieties.

Some of the more commonly-used types of active packaging include the following varieties listed below. These account for the bulk of the active packaging sector in value terms.

  • Gas scavengers – these are packaging elements (usually sachets) which capture residual gases such as oxygen and ethylene from inside the package, thereby inhibiting mould growth and extending the shelf-life of foods.
  • Antimicrobial packaging – systems designed to control the growth of micro-organisms in packaged foods and extend their shelf-life. Antimicrobial systems can be formed using packaging materials and inserts, as well as edible food ingredients.
  • Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) – first developed in the 1970s, MAP substitutes the air inside a package with a protective gas mix, thereby acting as a preservative. It is especially popular within sectors such as meat and fish products, bakery goods and fresh produce.
  • Fragrance control packaging – which controls or eliminates odours within food packages.

Many industry leaders compete within the active and intelligent packaging sector. Amcor, for example, is present in the MAP sector via its LifeSpan range, which it acquired in 1995 and now features widely in packaging for fresh produce. Elsewhere, Constar‘s food packaging range includes its DiamondClear oxygen-scavenging technology, which elevates the barrier performance of PET containers and is used for the Hunt’s ketchup brand owned by ConAgra Foods.

The greater emphasis on active packaging is further illustrated by the recent joint venture partnership created by Israeli materials sciences company Oplon and Rank Group subsidiary Reynolds. The new joint venture will develop antimicrobial coatings for food and drink packaging, which could potentially extend shelf-life by months. The new coatings may find particular favour in Africa and Asia, where the food industry remains hampered by the lack of a chilled supply chain network.

Recent active packaging applications include the development of new packaging for fresh produce featuring an ethylene strip. This was developed by It’s Fresh!, a supplier of active packaging owned by Food Freshness Technology Holdings. The new ethylene-absorbing packaging – which has been adopted by major UK food retailers such as Tesco, Asda and Marks & Spencer – claims to extend the shelf-life of products such as strawberries, tomatoes, melons and avocados.

Ethylene absorbers also feature within a new type of corrugated cardboard packaging developed by European containerboard leader SCA in 2011. The new prototype (provisionally named fresh fruit +) claims to slow down the ripening process of fruit and is expected to come to market by the end of 2012.

Another company which has invested heavily in active packaging is Linpac. In May, the company unveiled a range of plastic trays and films which can be coated with antimicrobial properties before or after manufacture to extend the shelf-life of products such as meat, fruit and bakery products. The new products were launched in the UK and Europe, and form part of Linpac’s strategy of developing packaging solutions which extend shelf-life through the use of food-safe anti-fungal coatings.

Moving to North America, Sealed Air Cryovac announced the development of a new odour scavenging system for use in packaging during April 2011. Targeted at sectors such as meat products and processed cheese, the new system claims to eliminate odours and smells, as well as reducing weight. The same company supplies active packaging via its Cryovac Freshness Plus brand, which includes oxygen absorbing varieties which inhibit mould growth.

Time-temperature indicators account for the bulk of the intelligent packaging market. Over the next decade, usage of temperature indicator labels by the global food industry is projected to increase, mainly to ensure correct storage of perishable foods. It has been suggested that temperature indicator labels could find growing favour within the frozen and chilled foods sectors, to indicate when optimum temperatures have either been reached or exceeded.

To date, however, take-up of packaging featuring time-temperature indicators has been relatively low in the food industry, especially compared with beverages. Thermochromic inks (which change colour according to temperature) now feature on the packaging of beer and energy drinks, enabling consumers to see when the beverages have been chilled to ideal drinking temperatures. This type of packaging has been used in the UK by Molson Coors Brewing Company for its Coors brand, having been supplied by beverage can producer Ball Packaging Europe.