Active packaging: the solution to extend food shelf life

Active packaging is the future of the food industry. This technological development manages to increase the shelf life of food without compromising its quality. Do you want to know more about intelligent packaging? In this article we tell you about it.

What is active packaging?

Active packaging is a packaging system that serves to maintain and improve the sanitary and organoleptic properties, product quality and extend the shelf life of foods. Active packaging employs a technology that intentionally releases or absorbs compounds from food, thereby extending the shelf life of products by stopping the degradation reactions of lipid oxidation, microbial growth and moisture loss and gain.

This is an industry in full growth and development, as consumers demand fresh, healthy and easy-to-eat products that can be stored for an increasingly longer period of time.

While it is true that packaging in the form of separate packs or pouches has existed for over 50 years, it is only recently that technology has evolved to integrate into the packaging structure the active ingredients that improve food preservation properties. Moreover, this integrated approach reduces costs and makes active packaging a fundamental process in the production chain.

Uses and types of active packaging in foodstuffs

Active packaging can be classified according to the systems used as follows:

  • Active packaging with temperature systems: These allow the food to be cooled or heated and even cooked inside the bag or container itself.
  • Intelligent absorbent or emitter packaging: Absorbent packaging removes undesirable substances such as oxygen, ethylene, excess moisture and odors. Emitters, on the other hand, release antimicrobial substances such as carbon dioxide and ethanol.
  • Active packaging that modifies the composition of foodstuffs: These are antimicrobial, taste and odor absorbing, enzymatic or antioxidant additives that interact with food.

On the other hand, active packaging works in two different ways. Either by placing the active element inside the package in a package, sachet or label, or by incorporating the active into the actual material from which the package is made by means of systems such as lamination, extrusion or printing. The second mechanism is more interesting, since consumers do not encounter foreign objects inside the food package that could lead to confusion.

Composition and application of active packaging

The following types of intelligent packaging can be found according to their composition:

Oxygen absorbing packaging

Oxygen absorbers stop oxidation and inhibit microbial growth. The most common component in oxygen absorbers is iron, followed by ascorbic acid, which is incorporated into the polymeric structures forming a coating capable of absorbing oxygen, such as that found on the underside of beer closures.

Smart packaging capable of removing ethylene

Ethylene scavengers, such as 1-methylcyclopropene, extend the shelf life of products by slowing down the ripening process and food degradation. The compound 1-MCP is also commonly used in fresh produce washing and processing to block ethylene receptors and slow senescence.

Anti-moisture packaging

Packaging with anti-moisture components controls moisture and absorbs liquid run-off from food, extending the shelf life of the product. Pads, desiccant packs and rigid trays are some examples of this type of packaging. However, the addition of high-capacity hydrogels to packaging structures allows for more effective moisture control.

Active emissive packaging

Food packaging that is made with emissive compounds lessens the effects of spoilage from microbial growth, oxidation or uncontrolled ripening through direct contact with the food and diffusion from the smart packaging.

For example, when an antioxidant is emitted into the top space of the container, it decreases oxygen. As is the case with some packaged cereals in which butylated hydroxyanisole, or butylated hydroxytoluene, emitted from material through surface finish modifications in the plastic, stops lipid oxidation. Similarly, carbon dioxide emitters used in combination with packaging gases in a modified atmosphere, e.g. nitrogen, also have antimicrobial properties.

Antimicrobial nanomaterials

The ability of nanoparticles to create an antimicrobial atmosphere in active packaging effective against listeria, salmonella or E-coli makes nanomaterials, especially metallic ones such as silver combined with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, one of the bets of the future in the food industry. Some applications for nanometer-sized antimicrobial metals include orange juice, soft cheeses, fresh produce and deli meats.

Other compounds used in active packaging

The use of spices, essential oils, enzymes and food polymers in packaging materials to inhibit mold growth is limited by the degree to which inherent flavors or odors can be transferred to foods.

However, there is no doubt that the development of new components capable of preserving the shelf life of food is a growing reality within the food industry. That is why at Infinitia we have the best experts in this field. Contact our materials innovation team and we will personally study your case to offer you the best solution.