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It's a wrap: food packaging design goes high-tech

It's a wrap: food packaging design goes high-tech

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From software that can take a juice bottle from sketch to virtual store shelf in hours to innovations that make frozen dinners safer and more sustainable, food packaging design is entering a new era.

As shoppers at Barnes and Noble in Manhattan’s Union Square peruse the latest issues of Esquire and Glamour on a recent afternoon, a production company just a floor above them is creating food packaging using some of the highest-tech tools to date.

The process starts with a 3-D image of a juice bottle, a sketch of simple white lines, popping up on a computer screen in the offices of the Visualizer Team at the production company GSG. Using Studio Visualizer, a software product created by the Belgian company Esko, the simple 3-D image is combined with its 2-D label. The nondescript shape becomes a bottle of Creative Juice, which is sold at Equinox gyms throughout New York City.

With Studio Visualizer, the 3-D bottle is turned from side to side and upside down with the move of a computer mouse. The designers add shadows and colors and embossing for a realistic finish. The seven flavors of Creative Juice are lined up next to each other to compare colors. Is the green shade of Green Means Go, a juice with kale, spinach and ginger, too much like the green hue of another flavor?

Once the colors are finalized, the entire collection is transferred to Store Visualizer, another Esko software product. The blank background of the previous program is replaced with a grocery store shelf. The bottles are shifted around the shelf in the same way the move in space, bumping into each other and toppling like bowling pins with too much force. Competing products are shuffled into the nearby virtual shelves, helping the Creative Juice team decide whether their products will stand out from the crowd.

An evolving industry

From software products that can take a juice bottle from sketch to virtual store shelf in a matter of hours to innovations that make frozen dinners safer and more sustainable, food packaging design has officially gone high-tech. More than half of the sales in the packaging industry go to the food industry, said Joseph Hotchkiss, director of the Michigan State University School of Packaging, the oldest academic institution teaching packaging.

And, in virtually all food products, he said, the packaging costs more than the food ingredients. “You wouldn’t have a packaging industry if you didn’t have a food industry,” Hotchkiss said. “The volume of food products sold in packages is so large it’s almost beyond comprehension.” With the sheer volume of food packaging on the planet, plus the stringent safety and health regulations surrounding edible products, it seems only natural that high-tech packaging design innovations would begin with food.

Since packaging is meant to help food products stay fresher longer, the industry is constantly dreaming up new ways to improve shelf life while using fewer additives, said Kay Cooksey, Cryovac endowed chair at Clemson University. Fresh, refrigerated pastas, rather than the dried kind found in the pasta aisle, are only available because they’re blown with a gas that keeps them fresh, she said. “Being able to get products in markets we never could before is part of it,” Cooksey said. Specialty packaging called ripeSense, once used to package pears in Wal-Mart stores, displayed a dot that changed color with the fruit ripened, expelling ethylene gas. Customers could choose, without squeezing the fruit or guessing the texture, whether they wanted crisp, firm or juicy pears.

Even more important than selecting crisp or juicy fruit, of course, is knowing whether that food is harboring a dangerous pathogen. Researchers are designing packaging that could alert consumers to a pathogen in the food or to a food product that’s nearing the end of its shelf life, Cooksey said.

A French company has developed a sensor that can detect if food has been “temperature abused,” or stored at an inappropriately cold or hot level. If temperature abuse is detected, the sensor will block out a portion of the product barcode, prohibiting a customer from purchasing it. “That way the consumer doesn’t have to make a decision,” Cooksey said. But it could be tough to find a market for this sensor, she added, because of potential liability issues. For instance, who is to blame if a product has been temperature abused? Who covers the cost of a product that can no longer be sold?

While the sustainability trend has struck just about every sector, it’s especially relevant in food packaging, said Susie Stitzel, solution manager at Esko. That’s because of the pressure that comes with consumers constantly buying -- and discarding -- food packages. Some parts of the world, such as China and Africa, don’t have the infrastructure capacity to handle the millions of food packages crossing their borders, Hotchkiss said. And some states in India are even working to ban certain types of packaging. That, combined with Western attitudes shifting toward more sustainable practices, has lead to some high-tech food packaging tool and solutions to be used for increasing sustainability. ConAgra Foods, for example, was the first North American company to incorporate post-consumer recycled plastic into its frozen meal trays.

Preventing food waste can also help achieve sustainability through food packaging. Many food products are thrown away because consumers believe -- falsely -- that they’ve gone bad. Printed electronic sensors that make it clear when food is still safe to eat could prevent such waste, Cooksey said. But to follow through on the sustainability mission, she added, the sensors themselves would have to be recyclable. Another option is to remove and sort the sensors, which would likely be small enough to be melted down and remade.

Innovation at what cost?

Despite the move toward safer and more sustainable packaging, there are potential downsides to high-tech food packaging design, Young Teck Kim, assistant professor of practice at Virginia Tech’s Department of Sustainable Biomaterials, said in an e-mail. The price of the packaging system is likely to go up, he said, though that could be negated by better shelf life and other advantages. Some technology is still on the “lab scale,” Kim said, because the industry isn’t ready to invest in installing new high-tech tools. And consumers might need to be educated on complicated new food packaging, like bioplastics. For instance, if consumers don’t know to separate compostable food packaging from other landfill waste, Kim said, they could generate an even worse environmental impact than if they were using traditional packaging.

And just because a high-tech food packaging idea works in the lab doesn’t mean it’s easy to scale up, Cooksey said. Researchers are working on an antimicrobial film that would go inside food packaging to provide an extra barrier against pathogens. “We know it works,” Cooksey said, but the challenge is getting the film produced on commercial-grade equipment. There are also federal laws to keep in mind, she said, that mandate packaging components don’t interact negatively with the food product. It’s also tough to tell just how high-tech consumers want their food packaging to be, Cooksey said. It might be too soon for an interactive jar of pickles.

But the future of food packaging looks toward even more interactivity, Cooksey said. There are efforts to let food packages and appliances, like microwaves and refrigerators, “talk to each other” through information from scanned barcodes. “Even more so, we’re going to have things that are more interactive,” she said.

Back at GSG, the production company in Manhattan, president Ken Madsen described how the high-tech Esko products cut the time to market in half and save thousands of dollars per client. To change a single color on a bag of tortilla chips using the old design method, he said, required producing an entirely new physical bag -- at a cost of several thousands of dollars. Now, the color can be changed instantly on screen and immediately sent to a client’s iPad or iPhone for free viewing on an app. At the end of the development phase, Madsen said, the completed design is moved into a data management system where the client can access it for instant use in advertisements.

GSG is collaborating with Esko on a 3-D room at the GSG offices, Madsen said. Instead of viewing the product on a virtual grocery store shelf on a computer screen, he said, clients could enter a virtual grocery store wearing 3-D glasses and a glove that lets them pick up and manipulate the product. So it might not be long before the sophisticated Esko Visualizer programs are rendered obsolete by yet another innovation in food packaging design.

Photo: GSG/Creative Juice

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure