Food packaging is a global industry that has experienced a constant growth in recent years: plus 6.8% in value terms since 2013, a figure that confirms packaging as an essential element in modern trade. Due to the growing interest that consumers are showing in fresh products with extended shelf life, the biggest challenge that the food packaging industry is currently facing concerns continuous innovation in concepts and technology to satisfy and somewhat anticipate their needs.
Starting from the visual appeal that significantly influences the consumers’ choices, one of the most interesting innovations is vacuum skin packaging. With its clear, attractive packaging that showcases the product, this segment is rapidly beginning to outpace other case-ready market ones. The advantages are not only aesthetic, though: because vacuum skin packaging removes almost all of the residual oxygen from the package, it also minimizes the need for preservatives while increasing the shelf life of the food and reducing product loss. Furthermore, besides the appetizing presentation, the peel-off effect makes the products rather easy to unpack, thus adding another benefit for the final customer.
All in all, if until a few years ago food packages had the passive role of containment, protection and marketing of the products, today they are requested to have also a dynamic role in food preservation in order to retain the safety and quality of food throughout the entire distribution chain. For this reason, whereas traditional packaging materials were meant to be as inert as possible, innovative packaging concepts are now based on an efficient, active protection of food via the interaction among the food itself, the packaging and the environment inside it. In this perspective, active packaging promotes enhanced food preservation thanks to particular features of the materials used which help reduce food waste by preventing microbial and chemical contamination, as well as maintain visual and organoleptic properties of food.
If the safety of materials that come into contact with food is a prerequisite for the food industry so is the development of sustainable packaging that ensures that those materials are eco-friendly, recyclable and obtained from renewable energies. “RefuCoat” is an interesting European project that aims to develop two new types of bio-based food packaging materials: an active coating consisting of polyglycolic acid and modified silica oxide as alternative to current metallized and modified atmosphere (MAP) packages and a new grade of compostable and bio-based polylactic acid with improved barrier properties, compared to those currently available on the market. Aiming to achieve a zero waste target, other innovative studies concern the addition of nanometric fillers to biodegradable materials to improve their structural properties and consequently the shelf-life of the packaged product, while minimizing the environmental impact.