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Sustainable packaging for natural foods

Packaging for natural food products must protect food quality and safety while also connoting clean labels and sustainability.

Natural products offer consumers unique attributes that their packages can help communicate and protect. Packaging protects and preserves foods from origin (field or factory) through distribution and, ultimately, to consumers while minimizing cost and product losses. Packaging also informs consumers about product attributes and marketing.

Sustainable packaging has no single best example in either the food or packaging industries. The three usual indications of “sustainability” involve one or more properties:

  • Recyclable: Paper, metal and glass packaging materials can be recycled. Food safety considerations regarding chemical contamination for direct food contact packaging are minimal for metal and glass, but paper recycled from non-food uses (e.g., office paper with optical brighteners or newspaper printed with mineral oil inks) is not suitable for direct food contact. Polyester plastic (PET) from beverage bottles is recovered and recycled with sufficient assurance of cleanliness to be re-used for the same kinds of products, but most of the other kinds of plastic are not re-used as food packaging. FTC limits claims of “recyclable” except where local recycling facilities are available.
  • Compostable: This property can refer to either or both “backyard” recycling or “municipal” composting. The latter process applies to a broader range of materials because of its managed temperature and handling procedures. Most papers, cellophane and a few types of plastics have independent third-party “compostable certifications” to global composting performance standards.
  • Renewable: Paper and cellophane are of course the consummate renewable packaging materials and various “sustainable forestry” certifications attest to good practices used to grow and harvest the natural fiber used in them. “Renewable plastics” have received significant research and investment resources in recent years. Some, like Coke’s “plant bottle,” use natural fermentation processes to transform various plant materials into the same chemical building blocks used by plastics made from fossil fuels. Others use various advanced biochemical methods to produce “new polymers” otherwise not made from fossil fuel sources.

Packaging for natural foods can use innate features of its component materials to bring those products to consumers: Transparent films give the consumer direct visual information about the product; the permeability of resins can be fine-tuned to pass beneficial gases into packages of natural product and to direct unwanted gases and aromatics out; natural antibiotic substances can be added to packaging material to actively reduce levels of spoilage and pathogenic bacteria in natural food contents.

Learn more in INSIDER’s co-packing digital magazine

EAS Consulting Group independent consultant, Thomas Dunn, has designed and developed food packaging materials for 40 years. He received a career achievement award from the IFT Food Processing and Packaging Division and served as an industry member of the NSF Center for Advanced Processing and Packaging. He currently consults on packaging safety and solutions for food packaging users and producers. EAS Consulting Group continues 55 plus years of leadership in providing regulatory consulting to the industries regulated by FDA and other federal and state agencies.

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