Food technology

Unpacking food tech: How smarter packaging is making our food supply safer and fresher

When you think of the items in your home that are considered “smart,” you might not immediately think of the humble packages that line the shelves of your pantry or refrigerator; after all, the most basic function of packaging is simply to protect food.

But in reality, the packaging could do so much more. In fact, amazing packaging innovations are not only helping to keep food fresher, but will also enable brands in the future to better manage their supply chains and communicate with their customers.

“Packaging has always been ‘smart’, simply in the way it maintains food quality and safety,” said Pedro Gonçalves, vice president of marketing for Tetra Pak US and Canada. “But it will evolve to connect many nodes in the value chain, which will make it crucial for flexibility, quality control and inventory control, and even more important for brand managers, to connect with consumers.”

Smart packaging key functions

Here are some ways smart innovations are transforming packaging today, and what advancements we’re likely to see in the near future:

1. Traceability.

Traceability is most often associated with recalls because it identifies the exact product in question. However, there are other important factors related to traceability, such as the ability to improve logistics in the value chain by tracking where a package is at any specific time. And, in the future, it could provide additional opportunities. For example, from a sustainability perspective, this could mean tracing the “end-of-life” characteristics of a package to find out if and where it has been recycled.

2. Prevent food waste.

While one of the main benefits of proper packaging is to prevent food waste by keeping food fresh, smart packaging can go even further. For example, a store system can track packing dates and run a promotion to encourage a quick sale if an item is nearing the end of its shelf life. And as more refrigerators and freezers are connected, packages will be able to connect to the device through an algorithm that recognizes a code or an image and can report when an item has been purchased or opened, so that a consumer knows what to eat or cook first while still fresh.

3. Improve the customer experience.

Smart packaging will allow brands to move from one-way communication to two-way communication for stronger connections, Gonçalves explained. And while smart packaging can be a way to provide extended nutrition and recipe information, it can do so much more than that.

In the near future, packaging will be able to transfer information to wearable devices, such as health monitors, which can help consumers better manage their diet and other lifestyle factors. “Consumers today are much more informed and traditional advertising is becoming less effective,” Gonçalves said. “Brands want to become more granular in understanding their customers – where they’re consuming and why they’re consuming – and then giving the consumer the ability to connect with the brand. The package can be the primary portal for that.”

What’s new in smart packaging?

While smart packaging already plays an important role in connecting consumers and improving the brand experience, a number of advancements promise to make packaging even more engaging. For example, using smart packaging to determine end-of-life characteristics can help uncover increased sustainability options. “This can allow brand managers to identify if their packaging is being aggressively recycled and start a conversation to help educate consumers on how to recycle better if necessary,” Gonçalves said. Additionally, learning more about recycling behavior can help inform potential improvements to recycling facilities and justify their expense.

And, to enable brands to better connect with their customers, Tetra Pak will introduce full color digital printing on its cardboard packaging, which will open up new possibilities for flexibility in product customization.

A rich heritage of innovation

Tetra Pak’s desire to be at the forefront of packaging innovation comes as no surprise, given its heritage. From its origins in Sweden in 1951, it pioneered aseptic packaging and a filling process that allowed foods to be stable for a long time without the need for preservatives. This revolutionized the way products such as milk could be distributed, especially in areas where refrigeration was limited, helping to ensure access to healthy food for all.

This quest for innovation continues today. “Other industries have mastered the concept of ‘smart’, and I believe food is the final frontier,” Gonçalves said. “Tetra Pak is committed to preparing for the future through technology investments, with the goal of being connected to any system or platform used by a brand.”

Do you want to continue the conversation? Food Dive’s Brand Studio and Tetra Pak have launched a podcast series on “Food Technology Unboxing.” Stay tuned for our latest episode, in which we’ll dive deeper into smarter packaging. where we are today and what you can expect for the food industry in the future. Don’t want to wait? Catch our First episodein which two experts shared some of the common myths plaguing the food industry regarding the sustainability of packaging, and our second episodein which we explored how technological innovations are revolutionizing the way packaging is made and real-world use cases in its benefits.