Using Active Packaging to Extend the Quality and Shelf Life of Food Products
Conventional packaging solutions are not always ideal. Even with seemingly absolutely reliable modified atmosphere packaging, there is always a slight increase in oxygen ingress due to process irregularities. In retail, for example, this can lead to mold growth in baked goods or graying of sausages.
Active Packaging counteracts these problems. Active Packaging is packaging that “interacts” with the food in question and thus optimizes the quality and/or shelf life of the contents during storage. We answer the most important questions on this trendy topic.
How does packaging interact with food?
For active packaging, specific materials and objects are used that specifically release
– release substances into the food or its environment (releaser systems) or
– remove substances from the food or its environment (absorber systems).
The interactions between the active packaging and the food are intended to maintain or improve the quality of the latter and/or extend its shelf life.
The active component of the packaging is either visibly added separately – for example as an enclosed sachet – or invisibly integrated directly into the packaging material.
Which active components are used for what?
Depending on the food, “Active Packagers” make use of different components. We briefly summarize the most important ones:
– Water absorbers such as polyacrylates serve to regulate moisture. They are designed to remove moisture from the environment surrounding meat and poultry, thus preventing the food from spoiling quickly.
– Ethylene absorbers such as palladium/activated carbon remove the ripening gas ethylene from fruits and vegetables. This preserves quality and extends shelf life.
– Sulfite/iron-based oxygen scavengers promote oxygen depletion. They are particularly intended for dry foods, such as potato chips, but are increasingly used for all foods.
– Artificially produced or natural releaser additives such as preservatives, natamycin and chitosan or isothiocyanates from Japanese horseradish/wasabi, thiosulfinates from garlic, spice extracts (from basil, for example) or flavonoids (from grapefruit, for example) have an antimicrobial effect, i.e. they prevent the food from being infested with pathogens that are hazardous to health.
In essence, the aim of active packaging is to prevent quality losses due to oxygen. Such quality losses can include discoloration, reduced taste, and increased degradation of nutrients and vital substances, as well as the spread of harmful microorganisms such as molds and toxins.
Practical examples of Active Packaging
So-called oxygen scavengers currently represent the most economical active packaging function. They are also already being used successfully, for example in plastic beer bottles whose closure contains the active – sulfite-based – component. Iron-based oxygen scavenger systems can be found, among other things, in the packaging of ready-to-eat meals and in the films or tear thread of reclosable cheese packs.
What are the legal requirements for active packaging?
The active components used for active packaging must be officially approved. In addition, the materials and articles must not alter the composition and basic organoleptic properties (odor, taste) of the packaged food. For example, it is of course not permitted to use substances that conceal the spoilage of the food. And: An active substance that has come into contact with the food must always be labeled in a clearly visible and recognizable way for the consumer. The consumer must be able to easily identify inedible parts.
What distinguishes Active Packaging from Intelligent Packaging?
Both Active Packaging and Intelligent Packaging belong to the so-called Smart Packaging. However, there is one major difference between the two variants:
– Active Packaging creates conducive environmental conditions to maintain the quality of the packaged food in the best possible way.
– Intelligent Packaging provides information on the current quality status of the packaged food. For example, intelligent nanosensors in the packaging can indicate whether the product is still fresh and edible.
Summary and conclusion
Active packaging describes active packaging that has a targeted effect on the contents – the food in question. Suitable and approved materials are used which release certain substances to the product or remove them from it in order to prevent unfavorable developments and thus positively influence the quality and shelf life of the food. The active components can be added separately as inserts or integrated directly into the packaging. Active packaging helps to reduce food losses and waste.
Incidentally, active packaging is proving its worth not only in the food industry, but also in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical sectors.