Choosing appropriate packaging – Scaling up food production

Dreaming of scaling up your grandmother’s cupcake recipe? Or are you running a food production company and looking into a new product? Chances are that you will have to scale up your recipe or any new product you’ve developed. Scaling up brings along its own challenges and choices, one of them being: what type of packaging do you use? And not from a marketing perspective (which is also super important), but from a technology perspective. What works best for keeping your product at its best quality for longest?

This post is part of a longer running series on scaling up food production. In other posts you can read more about scaling up your recipe as well as the process side of things.

Choosing packaging for food

Unfortunately, one post is too short to give a complete guideline on choosing the optimal packaging for your food. However, we will go through a simple process that will help you get started.

This starts with answering several questions to start with. By answering these you should get a sense of the type of packaging you might need.

Look at the competition

The very first question when considering the topic would be: how do competitors package these types of products? This may sound simple, but having a smart look around can really decrease the amount of work you need to do.

Do competitors pack their pie in a cardboard box or in plastic film wrap? Do they place the vegetables in a sealed plastic bag or is it sold without a pack?

Do not focus on the design and brand, instead, have a look at the materials and the way the product is packed. Consider:

  • Does the packaging protect the product in any way? If so, how?
  • Do you think the packaging will increase the shelf life?
coffee bean pack with one way air valve
Notice that little hole at the top? A very smart trick when packaging coffee beans!

What do you need?

Now that you’ve got an overview of the world out there, it’s time to take a step back and look at your own product again. Consider:

  • Can a proper pack improve the shelf life of my product?
  • Does my marketing strategy require a certain type of packaging (an example could be that consumers should be able to see the product)?
  • What should be protected about the product by its package? For instance: can light harm the product (juices)? can it get squashed if it’s not in a pack (pies)?

Example: Salad mix vegetables

Let’s take a look at an example: freshly cut vegetables for a salad.

Competitors: a quick look at the competitors shows me that most salads are either packed in a simple transparent plastic bag, allowing consumers to see the salad, or in a plastic tray, sealed with foil.  I assume this is done to protect the freshly cut vegetables, they need to be protected from dirt and other contaminants. However, I happen to know also, that these packs greatly extend shelf life by changing the composition of the gas inside the packs!

What do I need: I need my vegetables to be portioned in my package, it would be very inconvenient to transport and sell loose vegetables. My consumers have to be able to see the product, to check whether it is indeed freh. Last, but not least, the pack should extend the shelf life of my vegetables by using this modified atmosphere packaging.

Other considerations

After considering the product perspective, it’s time to make a list of other aspects that are important to you:

  • What is the maximum cost of the package? Do not forget to incorporate this one early one. Expensive packaging will greatly increase the price of your product. In the low margin world of the food business, that’s super important.
  • Do you already have packaging equipment (or does your producer have certain equipment)? Are there certain limitations regarding the type of pack you can use? Often, this can greatly decrease choices and will generally force you towards a more common type of pack.
  • Are there other marketing considerations? For example: does the pack have to be a certain colour, size? The less needs you have here, the easier it is to find the best solution for your product. But also remember that a package can really set you apart from the competition if chosen wisely.

Find the suitable material

Now that you know what you’re looking for it’s time to zoom in on the technical details of the packaging.

If you concluded that the package really doesn’t serve any other purpose than protecting the product during transport and making it easier for consumers to transport it, the choices becomes a lot easier. You will not be constrained by the use of certain films. Instead, that pie might just as well be packed in any box or those cucumbers in any bag.

If your product needs a specific tye of protection, you’ll need more help and input. As said at the start, there are so many opportunities for packaging, that we cannot discuss all, but we’ll look at some.

Label drop
A pack not only serves to protect, it is also used to transfer a lot of information about the product to the consumer!

Vacuum packaging

When a product is vacuum packed all air is pulled out of the package and the plastic foil sits around the product very tightly. Meat is often vacuum packed, it is strong enough to handle the pressure of the foil.

Vacuum packaging is a very common packaging type for products that can handle some force and require good protection from moisture loss. Meat is prone to losing moisture and drying out (especially when frozen for longer periods of time). A properly chosen vacuum pack will greatly decrease the drying out. An important consideration is the type of foil used. It has to be suitable for vacuum packaging, thus strong enough and also of the type that doesn’t allow too much moisture to flow through.

Modified atmosphere packaging

We’ve touched upon this one before in the post, it is simply a pretty advanced (and thus interesting) technology to pack food. This type of packaging takes into account that fact that certain foods react to different gases. This is especially relevant for fruits and vegetables. They keep on respiring in the package. By modifying the gases inside the pack, this respiration can be slowed down (which also slows down deterioration).

If you’re interested, read more on the post all about respiration of fruits and vegetables or the one dedicated fully to modified atmosphere packaging.

Multi layer foils

This is also a fascinating packaging method on which, unfortunately, I’m less of an expert. Sometimes a product requires different types of protection. As mentioned, a lot of juice should be protected from (sun)light. However, a juice should also be in a sturdy pack to prevent it from leaking everywhere. At the same time, it should be possible to print on the pack. Also, we don’t want oxygen to enter the pack either.

Those are a lot of different requirements and most materials will not fit the complete brief. That’s when they came up with multi layer packaging. This type of packaging consists of several layers pressed together in one thin sheet. Each layer will have a different role in the pack. Together they can fullfill all the various requirements.

This type of packaging is a lot more complex than the ‘simple’ carton box used to pack a pie. If you think you have to go this way, it’s best to talk with a supplier of these materials to give you advice.

olive oil bottles
Transparent bottles! :O

Colour glass bottles

Ever wondered why olive oil is packed in cans or green bottles? Why beer isn’t packed in transparant beer bottles, but brown or green ones? Again, these all serve to protect the product that’s inside. The colours of the bottles keep sunlight out and prevent oxidation and deterioration of the liquid inside.

 

There are a lot more opportunities for packaging your product. If you’re interested in a specific topic or are wondering how a certain food should be packed, leave behind a comment (or send me a message)!

Also, if you are new to the world of packaging, there’s a nice infographic on the world of packaging on this website. It talks about the basics of packaging and the packaging industry, not necessarily focussed on food though.

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