Here is a hypothetical question that may be relevant when the phenomenal growth of food processing industry is considered, whether this growth would have been possible but for the magnificent role played by the packaging industry in developing functional and aesthetic packaging materials during the last 2-3 decades. If at all one single factor which helped the industry to pull in more and more consumers to its products and consequently set off hectic development of thousands of products, is to be identified, it is the packaging material innovations over the years. With the advent of plastic materials developed from fossil fuels with many desirable functional characteristics, food industry got a platform to diversify their product basket, extend the supply chain and prolong the life of the products more and more giving retailers, domestic and international, comfortable elbow space for mounting concerted marketing blitzkrieg. It is another matter that food industry is now on the dock for turning out products considered by many as unhealthy, unsafe and addictive.
The role of packaging changed from to time and as it is more or less an ancillary industry to food processing, its growth agenda determined by development of the food manufacturing sector, though non-food packaging flourished independently. Ever since the canning technology was established as a reliable tool to preserve foods which otherwise are perishable, the importance of packaging increased by leaps and bounds and to day it is inconceivable that the food industry can survive without the prop from the packaging industry. With increased volume of business, food industry started demanding more and more innovations from the packaging sector to which latter responded effectively and responsibly. Packaging industry got a bad name lately because of the critical safety questions raised by the consumers when they are used in food contact applications. So much has been said and written on plastics and their safety in packing foods that there is still no clarity on this important issue. Health experts, environmentalists and consumer activists, all continue to press for more sustainable and safer packaging systems. Whether these issues will fade away or become more strident in the coming years remains to be seen.
While resistance to plastics will not abate for a long time to come, there is still a feeling that they are inevitable because of their versatility. Development endeavor in the field of plastic packaging has been so phenomenal that, if their safety record is improved, they can provide unlimited and unimaginable advantages to the consumers. Active and smart packaging systems are really overwhelming and it is simply not possible to turn a blind eye to these emerging innovations. The basic function of any packaging is to make food last longer but if it can alert the consumer about changes taking place inside the sealed pack or interact with the content to improve the consumer experience like change of color in sea food packs from yellow to blue when it becomes bad or including CO2 to keep the freshness longer or providing O2 absorbers to pre-empt oxidative deterioration or use lactase enzyme in carton lining for making milk acceptable to lactose intolerant people can become standard industry practices in the coming years. Packaging system that can heat up the contents without the use of external heating through exothermic chemical reaction is a development which some how did not take off when introduced some years ago.
A change in packaging can revive the fortunes of a product considered on the verge of extinction. The classical example is pop corn which was once a very popular product for the kids as well as the adults and Americans were even given the tag as a nation with pop corn culture because of the omnipotent presence of this snack item every where. With the advent of thousands of new snacks in the market, pop corn naturally faded away from the minds of the consumers. It was after the introduction of microwavable packs for making pop corn at home where microwave heating system is readily available that this product again became a roaring success. Similarly till the advent of packaging materials that could stand high temperature exposure, ready meal design for instant consumption had to be dependent on metal cans and to day several alternative laminates with different combinations are available that can be used for making retortable pouches capable of withstanding high temperatures to achieve sterility. If Tetrapack system using paper laminates to pack many liquid and semi liquid products under aseptic conditions after UHT heating regime has become a run away success, credit goes to the packaging industry for evolving such versatile packing materials.
Most challenging task for food packaging industry is to deploy permissible anti microbial chemicals as an integral part of packaging without imparting any taint to the contents because food poisoning from pathogens is by far the most frequent danger faced by the consumers. Such packaging materials should have the ability to destroy microorganisms , should not harm the food in any way, must be cost-effective, should have low health risks besides being legally permissible. Sorbic acid impregnated bread wrappers were used extensively in some countries but this does not seem to be practiced any more because of better technological developments in bread making. There are many such anti microbial chemicals with high effectiveness which should be considered for incorporation in packaging materials without them leaching into the contents but still keeping the pathogens away. Whether this is an achievable task remains to be seen. However availability of zero gas and water transmission film materials for food packing is already helping many products to keep safe for even up to five years shelf life under vacuum.
Many consider Active packaging as the muscle of the industry while Smart packaging can be the brain. Active packaging does not remain as a passive physical protection system but interacts with the environment with in the pack contributing to improving the product quality or preventing the natural deterioration. In contrast Smart packaging system can enhance the consumer experience through intelligent interaction and help more appreciation of the features of the food product inside. Unlike most of the present packaging materials and the systems now in vogue, Active and Smart packaging provide an additional protective function without incorporation of any chemicals into the food for achieving longer life or better quality. Besides they will not have active contact with the food contents ruling out any product tainting. Computer inter phasing with packaging systems can be expected to make the food buying a much more pleasurable experience in the coming years.