Companies that process and package food continually search for two things: longer shelf life and sustained freshness. But increasing demand for sustainable bio-based or renewable packaging materials can make those things difficult to achieve.
How can a manufacturer achieve improved shelf life while maintaining quality standards as well as sustainability? The following innovative changes to food processing and packaging will pave the way.
- Food Preservation Technology
Microwave assisted thermal sterilization (MATS) is an advanced sterilization method for ready-to-eat foods. The process was created for the U.S. Army to provide quickly prepared, nutritious and flavorful foods to troops in battle. Not only does this technology heat packaged food through microwave energy at a frequency of 915 megahertz, every package is heated from the inside out and from the edges in. The food is heated for only six to eight minutes as opposed to an hour or more with conventional ovens. After cooking, the package immediately goes into a cold-water bath to retain the food’s nutrient value, color, flavor and texture. This process delivers high-quality, shelf- stable food with no additives and no added sodium.
- Active Packaging
Active packaging is an asset for many applications in the food industry. These technologies provide packaging that functions beyond the passive containment and protection of the product. With some forms of active packaging, components in the packaging are released and interact with the food. The components absorb undesirable substances that occur in the food, which slows processes that lead to deterioration in quality. Though traditional food packaging technologies are still widely used, the future belongs to active packaging, which reduces loss of food products by extending their shelf life.
- Advanced Robotics
Robotic food manufacturing is a rising trend—the value of the global food automation industry is expected to rise to $2.5 billion by 2022. Up until recently, robotic food processing has been limited. Since raw foods vary in size, weight and shape, it’s difficult for robots to handle them. But recent developments in sensing and soft gripping have made it possible for robots to handle many raw foods. Soft Robotics has introduced a flexible robotic gripper that can handle very delicate foods, even individual lettuce leaves!
Recently, beef manufacturer JBS searched for ways to install robots to perform processes that are dangerous for workers—for example, rib cutting which involves operating a high-speed circular saw for several hours. JBS found the answer by automating the task using robot manipulators and vision sensors.
- Smart Packaging
Imagine if food packaging could tell consumers whether their food is fresh enough to eat. Researchers at the University of Connecticut, Rutgers University and Kraft Foods are studying technology called the “electronic tongue” which effectively “tastes” food through sensors embedded in the packaging. If the food is contaminated or spoiled, the packaging changes color, alerting the consumer that the food should not be eaten.
Scientists in Holland are developing smart packaging with “release on command” preservatives that salvage food just before it spoils. The U.S. military is interested in smart food packaging—for national security reasons. The armed forces are hopeful that researchers will develop “super sensors” that detect whether food is contaminated to keep soldiers from being harmed.
- New Processing Technologies
Innovative processing methods that solve the shortcomings of less efficient existing methods can stimulate the industry. For example, fruit juice maker Fruitapeel invested nearly $3 million in high pressure processing (HPP), which allows key nutrients and product quality to be retained. Foodlife and Cool Wave Processing are developing cold plasma technology—traditionally used by surgeons as a healing aid—for several areas of food processing. Another new approach, non-thermal processing, occurs at lower temperatures than those used for thermal processing, which prevents the negative effects of heat on taste and nutrition.
Packaging for the food processing and dairy industries is where ILC Dover’s engineers shine—from liquid liners for sauces and liquid eggs to solutions for efficiently squeezing out fruit toppings. One example is our Xtrakt® system, which provides more efficient handling of medium to high viscosity liquids from bulk packaging in intermediate bulk containers (IBCs). The system increases productivity and yields while reducing residual waste, product loss and environmental impact.
For food processing and packaging companies that strive to protect our planet, these innovative processes bring good news. Players in this rapidly changing industry must stay attentive, anticipate and adapt to new challenges—pushing beyond boundaries to ensure the highest quality foods are delivered to consumers.