Changes at the Grocery Store: Modern Innovations in Packaging Food

Take a tour of a typical grocery store to discover the breakthroughs in packaging technology sitting on each shelf, from films that keep food fresh longer to lighter containers that ship more efficiently.

Like everything else in the world, the modern grocery store is full of technological advances to improve the customer shopping experience. Yet in the bustle of day-to-day life, these smart tech enhancements often escape a consumer’s notice. New packaging innovations are abundant throughout the aisles ranging from clamshell packaging, resealable chip bags, flexible stand-up pouches for soups and oils, as well as protection sensors embedded in crystal-clear plastic films used to wrap meat, cheese and vegetables. So let’s take a look at the technologies hard at work preserving food longer and keeping it fresh, healthy and tasty in supermarkets across the globe.

Produce Section

In today’s grocery store, many produce items are stocked and sold the same way they have been since food commerce began – fresh and in bulk. However, as public concerns mount about how to sustainably feed the world’s growing population, both conscientious consumers and producers have looked for ways to boost the shelf life of fresh produce, dairy products, meats, and prepared foods.

“Over the past 25 years, the UK grocery market has moved away from loose produce, to plastic-packed product,” said Anthony Gardiner, marketing director for UK-based G’s Fresh Produce. “We have also seen an explosion in the volume of ready-to-eat and prepared produce items, all of which come in either a plastic bag or tray.

“This movement away from loose produce has allowed grocery stores to become more efficient in their handling of produce, reduce in-store damage as well as waste, and increase shelf life. Longer lasting freshness is critical for us – as soon as we have cut our fresh salads, the clock begins ticking. Supply chain efficiency and high performance packaging have allowed us to slow that clock and consistently supply fresh, quality produce.”

Dairy Aisle

Along with fresh produce, dairy products are among the most delicate when it comes to storage and shelf life. Unlike fresh vegetables, dairy products can leak! Dairy packaging has to contend with all of these issues, as well as odor control for those delectable yet pungent soft cheeses.

Plastic packaging has been providing shatterproof, leak-proof containers for liquid dairy for decades. Some new innovations in the dairy aisle include improved barrier films and sealants that keep oxygen from getting into cheese packages, and the ability to keep milk fats from leaking out and saturating the packaging. In addition, unique adhesives enable high-barrier foil lids to adhere to light plastic containers, keeping items like yogurt fresh and portable, yet easy to open when packed in school lunches or for use on the go.

Meat Aisle

There are several noticeable advances in the fresh-cut meat departments. Once, meat was nearly all packaged in simplified, dense foam trays, but new thinner, more efficient plastic trays have expanded the options for meat producers. Many varieties are PET or recycled post-consumer PET, and the plastic film that covers and protects the meat has the same barrier-property enhancements seen in the produce section and cheese case.

Designing meat packaging with improved oxygen barrier not only protects against spoilage and keeps meats fresher longer, it also protects the meat from graying – a purely cosmetic development that can, nevertheless, repel customers, adding to food waste and increased cost for grocers.

Frozen Section

Frozen foods can have hard, sharp edges, so innovations in frozen food packaging focus on durability and flexibility in subzero temperatures. Advances in strength, puncture resistance and barrier properties have enabled modern conveniences like resealable plastic pouches and steam-in, microwavable bags, making the transition from the grocer’s aisle to the consumer’s dinner table that much easier.

Pantry, Dry and Snack Foods

Even staple and bulk food items have benefitted. “New materials and processes open the doors to friendlier packaging for the consumer,” said Jorge Maquita, senior packaging innovation manager for ‎Mead Johnson Nutrition in Latin America. “It’s no longer the era where the packaging is determined by whatever equipment the producer has. It’s the era where materials and equipment have to work together to provide packaging solutions the consumer is looking for. ”

Some of the consumer packaging concerns that are being solved by plastics include the heaviness of canned goods, the need for special opening tools and the difficulty of keeping opened dry goods fresher longer. Easy-open flexible, plastic stand-up pouches deliver the same soups, vegetables and sauces that required cans in the past, with less raw materials and shipping weight, saving resources in transportation.

Food Preservation Overall

All of the food packaging innovations that help keep foods fresh from farm-to-table, from fresh produce to frozen meat, have come about as producers and retailers seek to meet consumer preferences. The biggest demand that food packaging must address is food safety, and the plastic packaging innovations of the last few decades have done an excellent job improving the quality and freshness of our food. Improved barrier properties go even further by keeping the ingredients from spoiling for longer. Because of these advances, many food manufacturers have been able to decrease the amount of preservatives in their food.

“We’re going to see huge gains in sustainable and eco-friendly packaging in the near future,” said Dr. Donald Rosato, president of Plastisource, Inc. “Some of the new packaging applications being developed right now include blow-molded PET containers for hot-filled pasteurized foods, shatterproof recyclable alternatives to cans, packaging impregnated with oxygen scavengers or ethylene inhibitors that replace the preservatives in foods, and beverages and films with natural antimicrobials derived from olive leaf extract and minerals. The next generation of plastic packaging, some of which is already available, is going to make our food safer than ever.”