How Packaging Affects The Food We Eat

Food consumption was quite instantaneous in the early days of human evolution. This means that food was consumed immediately after it was found. Slowly, objects found in nature like shells, leaves, and gourds were used as containers. Eventually, hollowed logs, animal organs, and woven grass started to be used as containers. Fibers were plaited or woven into felts, which were used as wrappers or bags to hold food. With the discovery of ores and compounds, metallurgy and pottery were developed, which in turn helped us create more effective packaging materials and techniques. 

Food packaging has some important objectives. They are:   

Protection or preservation of food. Food packaging helps protect food from chemical, biological, and physical influences, thus ensuring that the beneficial effects of processing extend shelf life and increase or maintain food safety and food quality. Such influences include exposure to gases, exposure to moisture, exposure to light, exposure to microorganisms, insects, rodents, and other animals, exposure to shock and vibrations, impacts, abrasion, and crushing damage. 

Reducing wastage and containing food. Every year, significant quantities of food grains, fruits, and vegetables are wasted due to inadequate storage, protection, preservation, and transportation. Food packaging goes a long way toward reducing waste. 

Marketing and information. A product's packaging is its face and probably the only exposure consumers might get before making a purchase. So the packaging is the only chance for the manufacturer to distinguish their product from that of the competition's. 

Traceability. In order to improve supply management, detect or differentiate foods with untraceable quality parameters, and track food safety and quality, packaging is used to enable better traceability. Printed barcodes and RFIDs are used for this purpose. 

Convenience. Food packaging has enhanced ease of access, handling, disposal, visibility, resealability, and microwave ability. Some foods come in resealable packaging that enables partial consumption and long-term preservation. Packaging has facilitated one-stop shopping at a single retail outlet. 

Tamper-proofing food While no package can be 100% tamper-proof, special packing features called "tamper evident" like banding, special membranes, breakaway closures, and special printing on bottle liners or cans have reduced tampering. 

Paper, glass, metal, and plastic are the base materials used in modern-day packaging. Let us take a look at them: 

Paper. Referred to as flexible packaging today, paper might be the oldest form of packaging. The Chinese used treated mulberry bark for packaging as early as the first or second century BC. Papermaking was refined and moved westward in the next 1500 years, first to the Middle East and then to Europe and beyond. Flax fibers and old linen rags were initially used to make paper. Only in 1867 was paper manufactured from wood pulp. Paper is biodegradable, reusable, sustainable, and versatile. Most people look at paper favorably due to these traits. However, due to its ability to occupy more space and inability to effectively insulate food against light, temperature, and oxygen, it is less applicable in certain food packaging. 

Glass. Glassmaking started way back in 7000 BC as an offshoot of pottery but was industrialized in ancient Egypt around 1500 BC. In the next 1000 years, glassmaking progressed slowly but steadily across Europe, with clear glass being invented. It was only in the 1970s that glass gained prominence as a packaging material. Considered today as rigid packaging, glass has many uses and is usually reserved for high-value products. Food packed in glass vessels is usually safe to consume without any contamination. It can be molded into different shapes and sizes while also being transparent and translucent enough. While most glass is recyclable, its fragility, weight, and cost of production discourage some from using it. 

Metal. With the advent of tin plating on metal in Bohemia in 1200 AD, metal became a popular packaging material by the early 14th century. Metal as a food packaging material did not become popular until the 1960s. While iron cans coated with tin were initially used for food packaging, the cost of production and weight made aluminum the preferred metal for packaging. By the 1950s, aluminum was being used for packaging on a large scale. Metals are preferred for packaging applications over glass because of their rigidity and sturdiness. Metals can also be formed into desired shapes and sizes. However, their affinity to corrosion and cost of production make them somewhat unsuitable for packaging some foods. 

Plastic. This is the newest packaging material and was initially reserved for military uses. While plastics were present in some shape or form before 1933, they were brittle. In 1933, Germany refined the plastic production process, and packaging foam was soon made available worldwide. By 1947, squeezable bottles were being introduced for deodorant storage, and in 1958, plastic films were invented. What we today know as PET bottles and materials became popular for packaging and storage of food only in the late 1970s, and by the 1980s, they became mainstream. Their durability, low weight, and replaceability have endeared them to the food industry. Because they may be molded into desired shapes and sizes and are also inexpensive to manufacture, they've found many applications. However, their toxicity by way of releasing microplastics into the environment, polluting soil and water, and in turn jeopardizing human and animal health, has made us rethink their large-scale use. 

Food packaging plays a very important role in modern society. But their environmental impact is becoming harsher and harsher with every passing day as they form a large part of industrial and municipal waste. While some are recyclable, others are not and end up in landfills. However, some newer materials are being used now that are 100% biodegradable and recyclable. They are:  

Kraft paper. Also known as brown paper or butcher paper, it is made from plant-based sources and is environmentally friendly. It can be easily recycled and composted. 

Corn starch.  Made using resources from corn and maize plants, these are also environment-friendly and, when properly disposed of, will break down into CO2 and water. 

Compostable bowls with lids Made from sugarcane fiber, which is a byproduct of sugar manufacturing, these are microwave safe and 100% biodegradable. These need specific facilities for composting in order to decompose. 

Wheat. Containers and straws made of wheat starch have also gained traction in recent years, as they are also 100% biodegradable and recyclable. 

Edible cutlery. Like the humble ice cream cone, today's cutlery may be edible. Made from sorghum, this cutlery is not only edible but also has a long shelf life and is preservative-free. 

Cloth. While using cloth as a packaging material is nothing new, its use has gained greater momentum due to its inherent ability to be reused and washed. 

Potato peels and fruit waste Potato peels and fruit waste are being used nowadays as packaging materials. Films made from these materials are resistant to temperatures as high as 200 °C and have good breaking strength. 

Bioplastics are plastics derived from renewable sources like vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, straw, wood chips, sawdust, recyclable food waste, etc. The only difference between bioplastics and conventional plastics is that, while conventional plastics are manufactured using petroleum or natural gas, bioplastics are derived from natural sources. After manufacturing, however, bioplastics behave similarly to conventional plastics and are just as harmful to human health and the environment. While some bioplastics are biodegradable, their biodegradability depends on the chemical composition of the bioplastic in question. Their economic and environmental feasibility are questionable, as a lot of arable land needs to be available for processing. Also, bioplastics at the end of their life cycle are usually sent to landfills, where they behave just like regular plastics because of the absence of adequate composting facilities. Bioplastics have to be carefully considered as they require significantly more research and infrastructure investment to be effective in the long run. 

It is no secret that food packaging is an integral part of our lives. Without such effective packaging, the global food trade and an individual’s ability to purchase and store food for long periods of time will be affected. However, we also need to understand the adverse effects of irresponsibly disposed food packaging. They are beginning to form their own islands in our oceans, where they slowly release microplastics that threaten marine life. Responsible purchasing and disposal of food and food packaging is the need of the hour. The goal should be to reuse plastics while limiting or minimizing, and eventually eliminating, their use. Using alternative and sustainable packaging materials is another way to reduce plastic usage. After all, we have just one earth, and until we find a cost-effective way to move and live on other planets, let us look after it the best we can.