Active and Intelligent Packaging – How New Packaging Trends Aim to Shape Our Lives

Food packaging exists to make our lives easier. We need packaging to contain foods, protect foods from the outside environment, for convenience, and to communicate information to consumers about the food inside the package. Containment is the most basic function of a package. Even fresh produce, which is displayed unpackaged at the store, must be transported out of the store in some type of container. Packaging provides protection of food from adulteration by water, gases, microorganisms, dust, and punctures, to name a few. A food package communicates important information about the product, how to prepare it, and information about the nutritional content. Packaging also allows for consumers to enjoy food the way they want, at their convenience. Food packages can be geared toward a person’s own lifestyle through designs like portability and single serving dishes. Although traditional packaging covers the basic needs of food containment, advances in food packaging are both anticipated and expected. Society is becoming increasingly complex and innovative packaging is the result of consumers' demand for packaging that is more advanced and creative than what is currently offered.

Defining Active Packaging and Intelligent Packaging

Active packaging and intelligent packaging are the result of innovating thinking in packaging.  To understand what active and intelligent packaging have to offer the world of packaging, it is important to clarify what each phrase means. Active packaging is accurately defined as “packaging in which subsidiary constituents have been deliberately included in or on either the packaging material or the package headspace to enhance the performance of the package system” Intelligent packaging can be defined as “packaging that contains an external or internal indicator to provide information about aspects of the history of the package and/or the quality of the food. Active packaging systems are developed with the goal of extending shelf life for foods and increasing the period of time that the food is high quality. Active packaging technologies include some physical, chemical, or biological action which changes interactions between a package, product, and/or headspace of the package in order to get a desired outcome. Active packaging is typically found in two types of systems; sachets and pads which are placed inside of packages, and active ingredients that are incorporated directly into packaging materials.

More recent attempts at active scavenging have focused on incorporating the scavenger into the packaging material itself. These methods has potential for use in polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) bottles and can be included in many plastic containers and closures. Adding scavengers to the plastic rather than a sachet can save many problems. For example, in a packaging film that is tight fitting such as a cheese pack, a sachet to absorb oxygen cannot be used because the tight fitting film would stifle its functionality. Incorporating oxygen absorbing materials into the plastic components of the packaging material could be more efficient. One way in which oxygen absorbers are being incorporated into plastic materials is the use of a polymer-based absorber that is coextruded in various packaging structures. The oxygen absorber is activated via UV light so that the scavenging capacity is not exhausted before the end of the product shelf life

Intelligent packaging systems exist to monitor certain aspects of a food product and report information to the consumer. The purpose of the intelligent system could be to improve the quality or value of a product, to provide more convenience, or to provide tamper or theft resistance. Intelligent packaging can report the conditions on the outside of the package, or directly measure the quality of the food product inside the package. In order to measure product quality within the package, there must be direct contact between the food product or headspace and the quality marker. In the end, an intelligent system should help the consumer in the decision making process to extend shelf life, enhance safety, improve quality, provide information, and warn of possible problems.

How Active and Intelligent Packaging Shapes Food Supply Chain?

Intelligent packaging is a great tool for monitoring possible abuse that has taken place during the food supply chain. Intelligent packaging may also be able to tell a consumer when a package has been tampered with. There is currently work being developed with labels or seals that are transparent until a package is opened. Once the package is tampered with, the label or seal will undergo a permanent color change and may even spell out “opened” or “stop”. Perhaps intelligent packaging will be able to inform a consumer of an event that occurred such as package tampering that may save their life.

The intelligent packaging design that is leading the way in packaging technology is the time temperature indicator (TTI). The TTI is useful because it can tell the consumer when foods have been temperature abused. If a food is exposed to a higher temperature recommended, the quality of the food can deteriorate much quicker. A TTI can be placed on shipping containers or individual packages as a small self­adhesive label, and an irreversible change, like a color change, will result when the TTI experiences abusive conditions. TTIs are particularly useful with chilled or frozen foods, where the cold storage during transportation and distribution are important for food quality and safety. TTIs are also used as freshness indicators for estimating the shelf life of perishable products. A TTI technology known as Timestrip is currently being employed by Nestle in their food service products in the UK.

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