Intelligent and active packaging have emerged as new packaging systems. These technologies are changing the packaging’s passive role, of being just a container, to having a functional role to increase food shelf-life and monitor freshness. What are these packaging technologies about?

Intelligent packaging with a time indicator

Intelligent packaging uses an external or internal indicator to provide information about the history of the package or quality of food. It is based on the ability to sense, detect or record and to transmit this information to the consumer. This type of packaging may incorporate time-temperature indicators, that can tell the consumer when foods have been temperature abused, which can cause deterioration; gas indicators, that are useful when there is a gas leakage or oxygen detected in vacuum packaging; and thermo-indicators, that are temperature sensitive and can change colour based on temperature, to let the consumer know whether the package is too hot or cold enough.

Active packaging with a gas scavenger Biofresh®

Active packaging, on the other hand, is defined as packaging in which the material constituents, the product and the environment interact to extend the shelf life of foods, preserving the food for longer and maintaining high quality. Examples of active components in this type of packaging are: Oxygen scavengers that absorb oxygen and prevent oxidation reactions; Antimicrobials, used to inhibit the growth of microorganisms that can lead to the deterioration of foodstuffs; and Antioxidants, that prevent or slow down the oxidation reactions that affect food quality (lipid oxidation, changes in taste and odour and deterioration of texture).

But what are the advantages of these technologies? Well, there are three very important benefits. One is the extension of food shelf life and the maintenance of quality and safety. The second, as a consequence of the first, is the reduction in food waste. The EU alone generates 88 million tonnes of food waste per year, equal to 143 billion euros. And the third advantage is the possibility to reduce the addition of artificial preservatives and/or replace them with natural antimicrobial substances, such as essential oils or natural extracts.

The curious thing is that, despite these advantages, there are not many active packaging systems in the market, which could be related to difficulties in bringing the technology to the market. Such challenges include developing materials that work as well as they should, meeting the health and safety requirements in accordance with EU regulations, and finally, gaining industry and consumer acceptance for the packaging system. This acceptance is also related to the extra packaging cost, even though active packaging is expected to prevent food waste and, therefore, save money.

Knowing that with these kinds of packaging, you can extend food shelf-life and prevent food waste, would you buy it?