Home > Going the distance: the importance of shelf life extensions

Going the distance: the importance of shelf life extensions

article image

Shelf life extensions should be a top priority for today's food and beverage manufacturers, writes Pierre Pienaar.  

Those involved in food and beverage packaging know well that both consumers and manufacturers are demanding increased shelf life from products. The modern food industry has developed and expanded because of its ability to deliver a wide variety of high quality food products to consumers on a national and international basis. 

This feat has been accomplished by building stability into the products through processing, packaging and additives that enable foods to remain fresh and wholesome throughout the distribution process.   

Intelligent packaging functions include sensing, detecting, recording, tracing, communicating and applying scientific logic in order to extend shelf life, enhance safety, improve quality, provide information and warn about possible issues. 

There is a commercial benefit to ensuring products stay fresh for longer. The extension of shelf life is based on slowing the deterioration of the product by using a range of processes together with effective packaging to preserve the product in a suspended state. 

The principal mechanisms involved in the deterioration of processed foods are: 

  • Microbiological spoilage sometimes accompanied by pathogen or germ development 
  • Chemical and enzymatic activity causing the breakdown of colour, odour, flavour and texture changes 
  • Moisture or other vapour migration which produces changes in texture, water activity and flavour. 

Therefore to enhance shelf life the focus should be on: 
  • Reducing microbial activity  
  • Increasing acidity 
  • The addition of additives 
  • Reducing water activity 
  • Modifying the immediate environment. 

Initially, extending the shelf life of products was a supply chain issue, but it's now become a consumer concern, with shoppers demanding fresh products, and increasingly, sustainable packaging. 

Consumer demands for convenience have created new innovations in the food product development and packaging industries. More work is being done on oxygen scavengers, moisture absorbers and barrier films that will enhance the shelf life of products.

Consumers want packaging that keeps products clean, ready for eating, with longer shelf life, product security and value for money. This is a big ask, but packaging technologists need to rise to the challenge. 

The terms 'active packaging' and 'smart packaging' refer to packaging systems used with foods, pharmaceuticals and several other types of products. They help extend shelf life, monitor freshness, display information on quality and improve safety and convenience. 

Active Packaging 
There is a range of active packaging techniques which are available. The broad categories are: 

  • Absorbers/removers 
  • Release systems 
  • Self heating/cooling 
  • Selective permeation 
  • Smart Packaging 

In conjunction with the developments in packaging materials which help to extend and protect shelf life, there is also a complimentary group of devices which monitor the products in the packs. These include time and temperature indicators, as well as leak and gas indicators, which provide an indication to the consumer of the state or freshness of the product. 

One of the fastest growing areas in food manufacturing is the application of nanotechnology in packaging materials. As the food market has expanded into a worldwide marketplace, it is requiring a longer shelf life. New materials incorporating nano-particles have been able to reduce, and in some cases eliminate, the transmission of oxygen, and in addition have blocked the transmission of moisture from the product. 

With the daily challenges of preserving product and minimising losses, growers, packers, shippers and retailers now have new packaging options that allow them to dramatically increase shelf life.  

Various packaging technologies can help food handlers remain competitive by reducing spoilage and delivering consistent quality products on every shipment.  

Innovations in packaging for extending shelf life will be key drivers over the next few years for manufacturers. Enhanced technical knowledge and input by packaging technologists and packaging engineers through improved performance qualities of materials will be required to fuel market growth. 

Pierre Pienaar is education coordinator at the Australian Institute of Packaging

Newsletter sign-up

The latest products and news delivered to your inbox