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Packaging plays a crucial role in the food industry to protect, preserve, and promote food items. To ensure optimal food safety and quality, manufacturers need to choose the right packaging option for each of their products.

A wide range of packaging types make their way onto shop shelves, including glass, plastic, metal, paper, cardboard, as well as biodegradable and compostable materials. Each type of packaging comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and manufacturers need to consider which type of packaging is the best fit for each product. This article will give you a whistle-stop tour of the different types of packaging commonly used within the food industry.

Glass Packaging

With its transparent finish, allowing consumers to get a clear view of the product inside, glass makes for a popular storage solution in the food industry. Moreover, being an inert material, glass doesn’t react with its contents, nor does it absorb odors or flavors, making it a great option for packaging acidic or high-temperature food products. It also has the advantage of being easy to clean. Glass is also an excellent option for packing products that need to be sterilized such as baby food, jam, pickles, and sauces.

This material does however come with some drawbacks—glass packaging is heavy, making it difficult and expensive to transport. Glass packaging is also not suitable for products packed at high pressure, as it can break easily.

Foods Packaged in Glass

Examples of food and beverages you’ll commonly find packaged in glass include jars of pickles, jam, pasta sauce, baby food, as well as some types of beer and wine. Glass packaging is also often used for premium or high-end products, such as gourmet olive oils and balsamic vinegars. All in all, glass packaging is a great option for products that need to be stored for long periods of time and require little or no alteration during the storage process.

Plastic Packaging

Plastic packaging is a versatile and widely-used option in the food industry, particularly in flexible packaging. Flexible packaging refers to packing materials that can be easily shaped, folded, or rolled, such as bags, pouches, and films. Allowing for easy storage and transportation, flexible packaging has taken the food industry by storm.

What Are the Benefits of Flexible Packaging?

Flexible packaging boasts a number of advantages compared to its rigid, traditional counterpart, including greater production efficiency, longer shelf life, simplified shipping and handling, durability, convenience, and attractiveness. It is also more eco-friendly, user-friendly, and offers more scope for packaging innovations and customization.

Types of Flexible Packaging

Flexible packaging comes in all shapes and sizes, including bags, boxes, pouches, and trays. Bags can be used for various products, while boxes and pouches are usually limited to storing edible goods. Trays are often used in industrial settings.

What Materials Are Used for Flexible Packaging?

Flexible packaging can be made from a variety of materials, including plastic, paper and aluminum foil. However, the most widespread material is plastic, with polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyester being the most common choices. Compostable films are beginning to hit the market, but at a higher cost.

What Industries Use Flexible Packaging?

Flexible packaging is used in a variety of sectors, including food and beverage, pharmaceutical, consumer goods, and industrial production. The food and drink industry is the largest user of flexible packaging, with products such as pre-packed snacks,  packets of sugar, salt and pepper, frozen foods, powdered sauces, coffee, and pet food often coming in flexible materials. Thanks to its convenience and cost-effectiveness, flexible packaging is a go-to option for many industries.

Plastic packaging can keep food fresh for long periods of time. It’s also lightweight and hard-wearing, which makes it easy to handle and transport. Additionally, plastic packaging can be made in different shapes, sizes, and colors, so it lends itself well to product branding and marketing. Again, there is a snag—plastic packaging is not biodegradable, and when not disposed of properly, can be harmful to the environment.

Foods Packaged in Plastic

Examples of food products we often see in plastic packaging include snacks, cereal, crackers, frozen foods, and some types of beverages. Forms of flexible packaging such as stand-up pouches and zip lock bags are increasingly gaining popularity because of their convenient, easy-to-transport, and high-performance design which allows manufacturers to increase the shelf life of their products.

Metal Packaging

Metal packaging, particularly aluminum and steel, is highly valued in the food industry for its durability. Metal packaging is also a great option for products requiring high-temperature processing, such as canned foods.

Food products stored in metal packaging offer a longer shelf life. Metal packaging, especially aluminum, also provides an excellent barrier against light, air, and moisture, helping to preserve the quality and freshness of food. Metal packaging is also recyclable, making it a sustainable packaging option.

That said, metal packaging also comes with its share of disadvantages. For example, it is heavy, so transporting it doesn’t come cheap. Some types of metal packaging can also release chemicals into the food they are storing.

Types of Metal Packaging Used in the Food Industry

You will find two types of metal packaging that are used in the food industry: aluminum and steel. Aluminum is often used for packaging products that require high-temperature processing, such as canned fruit, vegetables, soup, and meat. Likewise, steel is also used to pack canned goods, but because it offers high protection against light, air, and moisture.

Examples of Foods Packaged in Metal

Food products commonly packaged in metal include those that come in a can, such as chopped fruit, vegetables, soup, and meat. Canned goods are a consumer favorite because they are easy to transport, easy to use, and offer a long shelf life. Additionally, canned food is also a great option for the safe storage of emergency food supplies.

Paper and Cardboard Packaging

Paper and cardboard packaging, such as corrugated boxes and cartons, are a mainstay within the food industry. Being fully biodegradable, they make for a sustainable food packaging solution.

Corrugated boxes are made from layers of paper, typically with a wavy inner layer sandwiched between two flat outer layers. This gives them strength and durability, making them suitable for storing heavy products. Cartons, on the other hand, are made from paperboard and are often used for packaging lighter products such as milk, juice, and soup.

Biodegradable and Compostable

Paper and cardboard packaging are biodegradable and compostable, making them an environmentally-friendly solution. In addition, paper and cardboard packaging have the advantage of being lightweight, as well as easy to handle, transport, and store. They can also be printed on, making them ideal for featuring product and marketing information.

However, this option does not offer the same moisture resistance or durability we have seen with other packaging types. It is also not suitable for fragile products that require a high level of impact protection. Furthermore, given their lack of strength, paper and cardboard packaging are not suitable for products packaged under high pressure.

Examples of food products commonly packaged in paper and cardboard include cereal, crackers, and some types of liquids such as milk, juice, and soup.

Biodegradable and Compostable Packaging

Biodegradable and compostable packaging are a more recent addition to the food packing scene. These types of packaging are made from natural materials such as plant-based and starch-based materials that decompose naturally in the environment. Biodegradable packaging can be broken down by natural micro-organisms, while compostable packaging can be broken down in a composting facility.

These forms of packaging are eco-friendly and help combat environmental waste. In addition, they are well-suited for perishable food products, as they allow air to circulate and so help these foods last longer.

The downside of biodegradable and compostable packaging is that they are not as durable as other packaging types. For example, you cannot use them to store delicate products that are prone to breakage. Moreover, these green materials are not yet widely available and can prove costly compared to the other packaging options out there.

Food items sold in bulk, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, are an example of a product that is commonly packaged in biodegradable and compostable materials.

To Wrap Things Up

The food industry uses a wide range of different materials, including glass, plastic, metal, paper, cardboard, as well as biodegradable and compostable materials, to package goods ready for the consumer. With the devastating effects of climate change looming ever closer on the horizon, it’s crucial that manufacturers home in on sustainable and environmentally-friendly packaging options to reduce waste and protect the planet. The world of packaging technology is constantly evolving and, as we look to the future, trends in the food industry are pointing toward greener and more earth-friendly solutions.