Traces of food packaging can be observed from the pre-historic times. Natural substances such as leaves, twigs, wood, animal skin, etc. were used as packaging materials to store food items. As humans evolved and their living and eating habits changed, so did their packaging techniques.
With the development of cities and rise in trade, the storage material was required to be sturdy. This led to the use of wooden boxes, crates, clay pots, and barrels for the transportation of goods from one city to another.
As the general public grew aware of what the packaging items were made up of, the food corporations had to change the composition of their packaging materials to make them free of chemicals harmful for our health. Today many brands while advertising for their products label their plastic bottles as BPA (Bisphenol A) free and/or PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) free. We often ignore these labels but they are of extreme importance from the perspective of our health.
Apart from packaging, the foods that we consume come in contact with several materials before reaching us. These materials are referred to as the Food Contact Materials (FCMs). Other than packaging materials, FCMs can include any substance that the food item comes in contact with during its production, harvesting, transportation or storage. Other than these, the conveyer belts and cleaning agents can also act as FCMs and transport unwanted substances and chemicals on to the food items.
Modified Atmospheric Packaging (MAP)
The nutritional and sensory qualities of a produce starts deteriorating right after it is harvested. This occurs due to transpiration and ripening of the produce post its harvest.
MAP, a method of intelligent packaging, is used for fresh produces in which the environment inside the package is modified or adjusted with an aim to increase the shelf life of these produces. This alteration in the environment can be done by displacing the air and flushing a desired gaseous mixture which increases the produces’ shelf life.
Active Packaging (AP)
This method of packaging integrates the use of active additives with a desire to meet the criteria of the client and convince them. In AP, the active additives react with the environment and the food components to increase the shelf life, improve the condition and safety of the product. The conventional way of packaging, also called passive packaging, was done with an aim to preserve the food from external environment and delay its process of decay.
AP is done by using materials that absorb moisture and odour, reduce the quantity of oxygen and ethylene gas, and emit antioxidants and antimicrobials in the internal atmosphere. These active additives can be mixed with the ingredients or enclosed in the packaging.
Intelligent Packaging (IP)
Intelligent packaging focuses on conveying data to the consumers. It is a packaging method which effectively carries out intelligent functions like detecting, sensing, recording, tracing, communicating and applying scientific logic to facilitate decision-making to extend shelf life, enhance safety, improve quality, provide information and warn about possible problems.
It gives credible and authentic data to the client about safety, quality and integrity of the package.
It includes tightness, temperature and gas leakage indicators, biosensors, barcodes, and so on. IP devices are labels or tags which are attached on the packaging (such as pouches, trays, containers,
tetra-packs etc.) to convey the information throughout the supply network to make it possible to take suitable actions in order to maintain optimum quality and safety.
It is a combination of active and intelligent packaging in one system. Such packaging is able to detect and control the essential variables influencing the quality description of the product.
The latest systems being explored in the group of smart packaging are self-cleaning, self-heating or cooling and self-healing packages.
Many self-healing polymers are efficient in the recovery of the authentic properties of the packaged substances, if and when there is damage.
Selfcleaning, heating and cooling properties also make smart packaging a very popular concept.
A wide variety of synthetic polymers are used in the manufacture of packaging substances such as Poly Ethylene Terephthalate (PET), polypropene, polystyrene, High Density Polyethylene (HDP) and Low Density Polyethylene (LDP).
These synthetic polymers are non-biodegradable and therefore pose a threat to the environment and living beings as they emit enormous amount of pollution.
Nanoscience is emerging as a fertile ground for developing much durable food packaging. However, research on the use of nanomaterials in food packaging is still at a nascent stage because consumers prefer to use naturally obtained substances for packaging of food. But in the times to come, nanotechnology could change the food industry once and for all by producing high-barrier packaging materials with more potent antimicrobial agents and UV protection.
This packaging can also be incorporated with nanosensors to detect any trace of contaminants, gases or microbes in the packaged food items.
With plenty of innovative work being carried out in finding smart ways of packaging, we can only wait to see what the future has in store for us.