Food Packaging 101
What is food packaging?
Food packaging is packaging that has been designed specifically for food.
The main goal of food packaging is to protect goods from tampering and biological, chemical, and physical deterioration from harvest to consumption.
A brief history of food packaging
Earliest food packaging can be traced back to 6000 BC when food preservation was centered around bees' wax to protect food from the elements.
The early 1800s gave rise to the tin and the first cardboard boxes used in commercial food packaging like canned meats and vegetables and cardboard boxes for cereals.
More recently, the early 1900s saw the introduction of cellophane and plastic 'saran' wrap, which is still used today. For food processors, barrier packaging and shelf life extension remain a priority. Our history of packaging page helps to highlight changes in packaging historically.
What is the importance of food packaging?
Food packaging is critical for conveying the correct information, protecting the product, and extending shelf life as much as possible.
However, these aren't the only crucial aspects of food packaging - practicality also plays a role in design. Packaging needs to be as recyclable as possible and be malleable enough to make transit via truck, boat, or plane economically viable. For marketers, packaging needs to be eye-catching and stand out on shelves, or the design may help to add perceived value to the product.
Why do we use food packaging?
Packaging is used for many reasons, including:
- Food preservation – Packaging protects food from the elements and keeps it fresh for the longest time possible. Wrapping methods, like vacuum sealing, extend the shelf life of many perishable goods by limiting the number of harmful bacteria and slowing product deterioration caused by oxidization. Modified atmosphere packaging changes the storage atmosphere within the package using barrier packaging to keep molecules from entering or exiting the package.
- Protection – Food packaging protects products from damage, light if needed, and other exterior contaminants. Any sealed package, bottle, or container will help ensure products reach consumers without contamination, damage, or deterioration.
- Displaying information – As good as packaging is for advertising and marketing purposes - customers need product information. Lists of ingredients and potential allergens, nutritional values, and manufacturer information are vital parts of the packaging. Food packaging requires processors to review local, state, and federal guidelines for warnings, ingredients, and other images before finalizing the design.
- Traceability – With modern packaging, the ability to track products from their point of origin is becoming more and more critical. Information about where products originated from, how they were harvested, and even packaging material details should be included to maintain transparency with the consumer.
- Tamper indication – Modern packaging seals products tightly with additional layers of security, so it's easy to spot when a product has been tampered with. Sealed and secured packaging helps protect the product and the consumer.
- For hygiene reasons – With certain products - namely raw meats, fish, and poultry - the risk of cross-contamination is high. Packaging is an added layer of protection against unwanted contact with other high-risk products or harmful bacteria.
What plastic is used in food packaging?
Common plastics used in food packaging include:
- Polyethylene terephthalate
- Polyvinyl chloride
Many materials are coextruded together to obtain the desired properties. Additives can also be included to change the packaging color, composition, and barrier properties.
The desire to go green has led many food organizations to push for recyclable or biodegradable materials.
Options like bioplastic, card, paper, and glass are desired to try and reduce the amount of plastic left in a landfill site.
The EPA also outlines plans to boost the country's recycling rate to 50% by 2030, showing a significant change in attitude among consumers and organizations.
What are the different types of food packaging?
Food packaging comes in all shapes, sizes, structures, and styles - each tailored to hold different food products based on their needs.
The most common types of food packaging are:
Flexible Barrier Packaging - Extending storage times with an oxygen barrier is a prevalent worldwide packaging option.
Boxes - Corrugated boxes are used for packaging exterior master packs of cereals and other products, but chipboard boxes are very popular in the food industry.
Cans and bottles - Aluminum cans, plastic, and glass bottles are all popular ways to store and transport beverages and foods with high liquid content.
Wrappers - Many wrappers have barrier properties. Flow wrapping is a common form of wrap packaging that is sealed and blocks oxygen. Other candy and paper wrappers may not seal or provide an oxygen barrier.
Poly Bags - LLDPE food-safe bags are commonly used for short-term food packaging. Easy to print on, and many closure options are available.
Trays - Can be made from many different materials; popular trays for food packaging are paperboard, foam, and polypropylene.
Cartons - Paperboard cartons are a sustainable option for liquids and powders.
Each form of packaging is designed to protect and preserve different types of food. Foods are sealed to protect from tampering, contamination, and spoilage.
Below are some examples of packaging ideas for a range of different products.
Food preservation methods
Preserving food and preventing the growth of nasty bacteria is a critical part of the packaging. If people consume food that has been improperly stored, the consequences can be life-threatening.Different foods have varying degrees of susceptibility to bacterial growth. For example, meat and fish can only be kept at room temperature for 2 hours. At this point, dangerous levels of potentially life-threatening bacteria accumulate on them.
On the other hand, dried goods – like certain fruits, seeds, and nuts – last weeks before they go bad.Luckily, modern-day preservation techniques let us preserve the riskiest foods far beyond their natural shelf life, reducing spoilage and lowering food prices.
Some of the most effective preservation solutions used today are:
- Freezing – The most used method of food preservation worldwide – freezing temperatures make it impossible for bacteria to spread and grow.
However, leaving perishables in the freezer for too long can cause them to dehydrate and ruin the goods – known as freezer burn. Many frozen foods and vegetables are packaged in polyethylene pouches by themselves or with a paperboard exterior.
- Dehydrating – This is the process of removing moisture from food. Because water is necessary for bacteria growth, drying out the food makes it nearly impossible for bacteria to multiply – excellent for a quick snack around the house. Most dehydrated fruits and vegetables are packaged in reclosable bags for easy closure after the seal has been opened. Barrier and non-barrier bags are used depending on the dehydrated products being sold.
- Salting and sugaring – These work in two ways. Firstly, they create near inhospitable conditions that disrupt the cells of microbes, rendering them immobile.
Secondly, dehydrating the products using salt dries them through osmosis, making it harder for surviving bacteria to grow. Though these options help to extend product shelf life, a packaging material is still needed to protect the product. For cured hams and meats, shrink-barrier bags and foil-lined packaging are common.
Modern packaging solutions can also preserve food just as effectively. Some packaging solutions commonly used to extend a product's shelf life are:
- Vacuum-sealed packaging - Many packaging methods used to preserve food create unlivable conditions for bacteria. Because the food is in a vacuum, bacterial growth is only possible over a long period.
- Glass jars - Like vacuum sealing, the lid of a jar forms an airlock – keeping the food as fresh as possible until it's broken.
- Canning - There are several types of canning.
Some canned products use a brine – a salt solution that creates harsh conditions for bacteria to thrive.
Another type, pressure canning, uses pressure to heat the contents to kill the bacteria inside and effectively sanitize the food. By changing processes for packaging your goods, the shelf life can be extended substantially.
For more information on food safety and extending the shelf life of products using packaging, visit our shelf-life guide.
Different types of tea and coffee packaging
Packaging for tea ultimately varies depending on the type. Tea bags can often be stored in a small cardboard box, foil sleeve, or paper pouch. Tin cans are commonly used for loose-leaf tea as they're effective against moisture and contamination, which can ruin the taste. Coffee packaging can vary depending on consumer preference.
Whole bean coffee packaging often uses foil barrier bags with a vent hole. The vent hole allows gases to escape the pouch when released by the bean but prevents air from entering the bag. Ground coffee is sold in cans, foil pouches or bags, and coated kraft bags. With the popularity of pods, they are often sold in sealed bags or sleeves to help extend freshness.
Different types of meat packaging
Raw and cooked meat products need an oxygen barrier to slow down the bacteria and accelerate decomposition. Traditionally, raw meat is packaged on a polypropylene tray and wrapped with thin sheets of meat film to prevent leaks and contact with other products. Many meat producers are moving toward a sealable barrier shrink packaging for less mess and longer storage times. Some larger meat cuts can be stored in thick airtight heat-shrink materials for the freezer and refrigerated storage.
Different types of packaging for fruits and vegetables
Vegetables Vegetables and fruit with a durable peel or skin can typically be transported in crates, bulk bins, mesh bags, and other containers. Leafy vegetables that can quickly perish when exposed to open air and warmer temperatures are more likely to be packaged in a polyethylene plastic exterior. Frozen vegetables are also packaged in a PE material, often with some barrier properties to help protect from freezer burn.
Different types of packaging for cheese
Cheeses need to be kept chilled and wrapped to maintain their freshness. Special cheese bags and film are the preferred packaging for cheeses. For large blocks and wheels, special barrier shrink film can extend shelf life. For shorter-term storage, special cheese film can provide an oxygen and moisture barrier.
Different types of packaging for pizza and frozen foods
Frozen pizza and other freezer meals use materials to protect from freezer burn during storage. Thicker polyolefin shrink film is popular with many pizza brands for packaging entire pizzas for frozen storage. Other frozen meals use a lip-seal film and rigid container to protect during frozen storage. Shorter-term packaging for pizza often uses a thinner pizza shrink film to wrap over the pizza and cardboard tray. This is a popular option for take-and-bake storage. Some smaller pizzas are packaged in vacuum-style packaging with custom-made containers, but it is not as common as the other options listed.
What are the different types of food packaging machines?
Many machines are used to safely and securely package and ship food products. The equipment commonly found in many food processing plants are:
- Vacuum sealers - Vacuum sealers work by placing products into specialized plastic pouches and sucking out the oxygen to make an airtight seal – keeping the products as fresh as possible. This is an effective method for prolonging the shelf life of perishables like meat, poultry, seafood, and certain vegetables.
See how a vacuum sealing solution can help extend the life of products – keeping them fresh for as long as possible with our vacuum sealed foods shelf life chart. It is vital to note vacuum sealers come in many forms and styles to meet various production levels and packaging requirements. The most common types of vacuum sealers are nozzle sealers, edge sealers, and chamber sealers.
- Vertical form fill seal machines – Loose products can be sealed using vertical form fill seal (VFFS) machines.
VFFS machines work through the process of gas flushing. Oxygen is replaced by an inert gas – like nitrogen or carbon dioxide – that drastically reduces oxidization and slows decomposition.
- Heat sealing machines – A sealing wire is used to melt packaging materials to bind them together and secure products inside. It's the preferred method used for non-perishable goods. In food packaging, dip tanks and steam are often used with a heat shrink material to sterilize the exterior once the item is packaged.
Large quantities of smaller food products can be packaged using:
- Bundling food packaging machines – Clusters of smaller products are secured together by a film wrapped around them, holding them in place. Multi-packs of bottles and cartons are commonly bound together using this method. Bulleyes or open holes on each end of the packaging make the results of a bundling machine easily noticeable.
- Case packers – Many individual products can be packaged using machines that automatically fill trays to the required quantities and secure them with additional packaging – such as plastic film or boxes. Many of these machines include mechanical components to pick products as needed quickly.
- Checkweighers - For liquid packaging, fillers help reduce spillage and maintain consistent amounts going into the bottle every time. Cappers tightly secure the top to prevent spillage and contamination.
- Fillers/Capper - For liquid packaging, fillers help reduce spillage and maintain consistent amounts going into the bottle every time. Cappers tightly secure the top to prevent spillage and contamination.
- High-Speed Shrink Sleeve and Labellers - For beverage packaging, shrink sleeves are placed outside the bottle and printed with advertising and information about the contents. High-speed labelers also quickly label food packages as they move down the production line.
What is the most environmentally friendly food packaging?
Corrugated cardboard and paper-based products are often regarded as the materials best for the environment.
Because the material is highly recyclable, completely biodegradable, cheap to manufacture, lightweight, and durable, it's widely recognized as the best all-around material. Glass and tin cans are also highly recyclable and excellent options when available. Rigid food containers are also now becoming more recyclable. If ever in doubt, look at the bottom of the container to view which recycling classification the container falls under. Any codes 1-3 will be more recyclable than codes 4-7.
Many food packaging plastics are co-extruded, making recycling and biodegradability difficult. Most tin beverage cans even have a polymer lining that can complicate recycling.
What are the different types of biodegradable food packaging?
Biodegradable food packaging has rapidly become necessary to tackle global landfill and waste management concerns.
This means switching to alternative packaging solutions from sustainable sources.
The best biodegradable packaging solutions for product packaging are:
- Cardboard and Paper – Made from naturally-occurring wood, it's a sustainable, lightweight, durable, and recyclable material that's perfect for packaging large amounts of non-perishable goods.
- Water-Soluble Plastic – Water-soluble plastics are an environmentally-friendly replacement for conventional polyethylene packages.
This makes it great for cheeses, snacks, and other low-risk food products. Because of their water-soluble properties, they decompose in landfill sites – reducing their environmental impact.
- Bamboo – Because of its durability and heat-resistant properties, bamboo is becoming popular for food packaging. It's also made from naturally-occurring material - meaning it has a minimal environmental impact.
- Rice husk – Not only does it gradually decompose in a warm soil environment, but its lightweight, durable, and moldable shape means it can protect all sorts of products from fruit and veg to even cups for liquid.
- Glass – Although not a new innovation, glass is the most recyclable material on the planet. It can be recycled endless times without any deterioration in material quality.
- Plastics with Oxo-biodegradable Additives – Increasingly, plastics such as polyethylene are being made with additives that allow the plastic to degrade in environmental conditions leaving nothing behind but carbon and biomass.
What are the FDA labeling requirements for food?
The FDA has become increasingly stringent in its guidelines for labels on food packaging. To remain compliant, food processing companies face an increased range of rules and regulations that need to be followed. In addition to federal regulations, it is crucial to be aware of state and local requirements. All should be considered before committing to a final packaging design and process.
Some of the FDA's more critical requirements are:
- Updated nutrition labels – As of 2016, the requirements for what information needs to be included on a nutritional facts label – including regulations for the format – have changed. Here are some of the changes to bear in mind. Serving size should appear in bold font to highlight how much of the product corresponds with the nutritional information below. Calories per serving are highlighted in bold to make it easier for consumers to find.
Nutritional information now includes the quantity of added sugars, vitamin D, and potassium content. Food manufacturing companies must now declare this data by law. [DS2] However, vitamins A and C are no longer required on the label.
- Expiration Date – The FDA is working with the food industry to change the term to 'Best if used by' to convey that products may still be consumable after the date if stored properly.
- Serving Size – By law, serving size must be based on how much food people typically consume rather than how much they should consume.
- Country of Origin – The region or country of origin can not be misleading. Food products must accurately display where they come from, not where they are processed.
- Manufacturer and distributor details – The name of the manufacturers and distributors, proof of address, and contact details must be included on the packaging under FDA requirements.
- Net Contents – The FDA requires companies to display the total amount of servings in the package and the net contents.
- Allergen declaration – Any potential allergens – like dairy, eggs, nuts, or wheat – should be clearly labeled on the packaging.
If they don't, food companies run the risk of legal trouble and putting consumers' health at risk.
To meet requirements, several factors can be considered about the food product being packaged. The FDA offers a helpful food labeling guide to be sure every guideline is considered. Explore our range of packaging options today or ask our expert team how US Packaging & Wrapping can assist your packing needs today.