Nutraceutical Packaging Trends

By Rebecca Wright | October 1, 2009

Packaging companies are positioning themselves to meet the varied needs of functional food and dietary supplement customers.

Whether you're talking about functional foods or dietary supplements, most consumers of these products as well as the companies that make them have become more aware of the environmental impact of their packaging. As a result, many firms are making room in their product strategies for "green" solutions in an effort to help them satisfy consumer demands, and maybe even make the world a better place.

The Environmental Equation

According to The Natural Marketing Institute's (NMI) "2009 LOHAS Report: Consumers & Sustainability," many consumers have changed the way they think when it comes to packaging. In fact, behaviors such as switching selection based on the amount of packaging and buying as many environmentally-friendly products as possible are up approximately 20% over the last year. Further, NMI indicates that consumers are beginning to perceive differences in the "greenness" of packaging materials.

With packaging comes a sense of environmental responsibility, especially in today's society. In this respect, Tetra Pak, Vernon Hills, IL, believes it understands consumers' demands very well. "The impact of packaging on the environment is a concern in consumers' decisions, and is especially important for the LOHAS segment of the general population. This segment, though a small segment of the overall population, leads the general population in concern for health and wellness as well as environmental concerns," Tetra Pak says. "It is critical to align product offerings for this group of consumers because they are trendsetters."

In light of these developments, Anthony Gentile, director of art and marketing, Xela Pack, Saline, MI, believes the companies that line the dietary supplement and functional food landscape as well as his own are responding accordingly. "In general, we are finding that nutraceutical packaging companies are increasingly interested in making sure that the packaging for their products is environmentally conscious," he said.

"We have been committed to the environment since well before it became such a hot topic item. And the reasons why are fairly simple," Mr. Gentile continued. "In 1987, our president, Al Gentile, thought it was the right thing to do. He believed that the country would follow suit and that the demand for environmentally conscious products would be large."

Mr. Gentile went on to say that while increased demand for such products did not come as early as expected, his company has witnessed consistently increasing sales for the last 10-15 years, a trend he believes will continue well into the future.

Narendra Srivatsa, business development manager, Cortegra Group, Inc., Fairfield, NJ, said natural products companies are definitely more proactive in terms of seeking out green packaging solutions. "They are looking to switch from plastics to paper," he said. "We try to help them use sustainable materials in package design by offering them different ink options, helping them choose inks that are food grade, for example."

Today's environmental concerns as they relate to packaging also seem to trump a down economy. In other words, despite the current recession, consumer packaged goods makers are forging ahead with new packaging innovations that are better for the environment, offer convenience benefits, and are more functional than ever, according to London, U.K.-based Datamonitor. In fact, the plastic bottle, which has become a symbol of consumer excess and waste, has been at the receiving end of some promising developments that could rehabilitate its image.

"Consumer packaged goods manufacturers keen to boost their green credentials are looking to move towards more sustainable packaging," Datamonitor says. "However, this is easier said than done for beverage manufacturers reliant on plastic bottles, leading some companies to develop innovative solutions to tackle the issue."

One problem with plastic bottles, Datamonitor finds, is their tendency to last a long time if not recycled properly. But companies like Aquamantra Natural Spring Water, for example, appear to have solved this problem. New in the U.S., this water is packaged in bottles produced by Enso that use a form of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that can be recycled and biodegrades in one to five years. Essentially, Datamonitor says, microbes are able to "eat" the bottle.

PepsiCo is also trying to appeal to environmentally aware consumers with a pair of green launches in the U.S. According to Datamonitor, the company's Aquafina bottled water in an "Eco-Fina" bottle uses 50% less plastic than before and its Frito-Lay unit has a new compostable package for its Sun Chips Multigrain Chips. This package is said to decompose in a matter of weeks in a compost pile.

"For companies to press on with innovative designs such as these even during a recession highlights the importance of environmental concerns," Datamonitor says. "Displaying an awareness of such issues and showing a commitment to tackling them can reduce costs, increase a product's appeal to consumers, and may also be a demonstration of a genuine sense of corporate responsibility."

As a show of its efforts in protecting the environment and saving consumers money, Tetra Pak says its aseptic carton packaging delivers. "Our technology protects products without the need for refrigeration or preservatives, which saves energy costs from refrigeration and reduces food wastage," the company claims. "Additionally, Tetra Pak cartons have one of the best product-to-package ratio-93% product to only 7% package, on average-which reduces transportation requirements."

Aseptic carton packaging has been widely accepted within the nutritional products category for a long time in the U.S., Tetra Pak notes. For products involved in weight management and sports nutrition in particular, aseptic carton packaging offers improved taste, convenience and affordability.

"Recent research has shown that consumers are increasingly attentive to responsible behavior from the companies they buy from," Tetra Pak said, adding, "According to the '2009 Cone Consumer Environmental Survey,' 69% of consumers actively seek environmentally responsible products if it's within their budget and 82% are buying as much or more green products this year."

Functional Food Packaging Trends

In the eyes of Bryan Wesselmann, director, Global Marketing, Rexam Closures, Evansville, IN, the food and beverage market is where the ideas are coming from in terms of new packaging developments, particularly functional beverages. In fact, he says outside of functional beverages there aren't a lot of exciting things happening in terms of growth. "The category brings in many elements and diverse products and many diverse packages. What we are seeing is a huge variety in sizes, shapes and styles. In light of these trends, Rexam has adopted a more proactive role in the market to better serve its functional beverage customers."

Rexam is currently supporting this effort by conducting focus groups to find out which types of packaging consumers are interested in when it comes to functional beverages. "We are trying to get in front of the market so we can offer this important information to functional beverage companies, providing them with a better roadmap," Mr. Wesselmann said. "It helps us give them direction on certain attributes that work for their products vs. others."

Through Rexam's focus groups, Mr. Wesselmann is finding that within each of the different categories of beverages there are some very specific use occasions. "A lot of functional beverages are consumed after workouts. This was surprising to me because I figured they were drinking water or an isotonic beverage," he said. "It is clear from this research, however, that consumers are looking for more than just replenishment-they're also looking to target muscles and healthy skin."

Portability and convenience, perhaps not surprisingly, are also very important in the context of functional beverages. "We've noticed that many packages are not resealable or lightweight, which is very surprising given the use occasions," Mr. Wesselmann said. "It is clear to us that functional beverage companies need to be better at balancing aesthetics with functionality and use occasions."

From this standpoint, Mr. Wesselmann believes the packaging opportunities in the functional beverage market are wide open. He pointed to energy shots as a good example of the innovation possibilities that can really pay off. "The functional beverage shot really broke the mold, allowing for product extensions without cannibalizing an existing market," he said. "We see a huge demand for this type of convenience because it offers consumers functionality when they want it."

From a technical point of view, Tetra Pak says, most nutritional products present unique challenges in the way they are processed and packaged. For example, many ingredients are heat sensitive, and the impact of heat treatment on nutritional value and taste varies greatly depending on the processing technology used. "Aseptic packaging technology limits the extended exposure to heat for sterilization, resulting in improved taste profiles for foods and limiting energy use when compared to more traditional technologies such as retort," Tetra Pak explained. "Dairy and nutraceutical products in shelf-stable packaging don't require added preservatives, keeping the food fresh and naturally nutritious, even without the need for refrigeration."

Dietary Supplement Packaging Trends

According to Marny Bielefeldt, marketing manager, Alpha Packaging, St. Louis, MO, unit sales in the nutritional supplement market seem to be holding pretty steady despite the economic crisis. Much of this, she says, seems to be driven by private label products and value-priced brands.

To stay at the forefront of market demands, Alpha Packaging is committed to finding practical and affordable ways to make packaging more sustainable using "rightsizing" and "lightweighting" techniques. "We've allocated resources to 'green' packaging because we recognize that companies in the health and wellness industry want to be as responsible as possible when it comes to packaging," said Ms. Bielefeldt. "However, consumer product companies need to do a better job of educating the consumer about what is recyclable, what is compostable and what is biodegradable-these terms are NOT interchangeable and research shows many consumers have unrealistic expectations about compostable and biodegradable bottles solving our landfill problems."

Eric Caro, global product manager, Printed Components Group, Catalent, Morristown, NJ, says his company is taking similar steps toward being environmentally friendly. "Our goal is to use less material so we can be as green as possible," he offered.

Catalent also has digital printing capabilities, which is key for nutraceutical companies requiring smaller runs of products. "This technology will come into play more and more for these folks if they are not already using it," he said. "Digital printing allows for, among other things, smaller runs, easier changeover and less cost."

Alpha Packaging has fielded a variety of requests for sustainable packaging options. As a result, Ms. Bielefeldt said the company is currently designing a 98-oz. wide-mouth high-density polyethylene (HDPE) canister that will replace a larger stock container currently used to package 2 lbs. of protein powder. "The brand, which is sold in Wal-Mart and other retailers, realized it could fit its 2 lbs. of protein powder in a canister that is approximately 25% smaller and 17 grams (15%) lighter than the bottle it uses now, so we've built this new mold and added it to our stock line," she said.

She also pointed out that several companies are interested in "lightweighting" their existing bottles and jars in order to retain the same bottle size, but reduce gram weight by making the bottles thinner and lighter. While she admits that this doesn't always work, she says in many cases Alpha is able to make a good bottle that is 5-10% lighter than the bottle it replaces. In 2008, for example, she said the company was able to lightweight many of its polyethylene terephthalate (PET) jars by about 10%, making the lighterweight jars the new standard.

Depending on the barrier characteristics required by a certain nutraceutical product, Ms. Bielefeldt warned that some packaging materials may not be adequately protected by HDPE or PET, and therefore may require glass packaging. But, she said, "Usually the companies making the products come to us already aware of what plastics their products work best in, and we always suggest compatibility tests any time companies change their packaging.

"When companies want to use polymerized lactic acid (PLA-marketed under the brand name Ingeo), we strongly suggest compatibility tests to make sure the PLA bottles offer acceptable barrier characteristics, especially for moisture," Ms. Bielefeldt added. "Some water-based products with long shelf lives, or hydroscopic tablets and powders, are not good candidates for PLA packaging."

Focusing on the aspect of convenience, Dallas Stiles, vice president, Sales & Marketing, Primary Packaging, Rexam, said companies are working on improving the dispensing features of their products, especially for consumers taking several pills a day. "There is a lot of demand for an appropriate dispensing feature for high volume users, so we are developing new product lines to satisfy this need," he said.

As for sustainability, Mr. Stiles believes the market won't see widespread interest in this unless cost parameters improve. "When you are talking about 'green' solutions, everybody is all for taking weight out of the product, which just means you are using less material and reducing cost-a win-win for everyone," he said. "We recently introduced a true recycled bottle, which was very well received, but sometimes those are not any cheaper than brand new materials. The challenges revolve around the cost of recycled material and unless they become more cost effective, you won't see broad movement on this front."

Mr. Caro of Catalent believes one of the most pressing needs in the nutraceuticals industry is extended content labeling, which gives companies and brands the ability to offer more information about the product. "This information gets wordy, especially with drug facts and contraindications. So instead of having a flyer, they just attach it to the label and can peel it back for more information on the product. You can also achieve this with a booklet that expands like an accordion," he said, adding, "There are a few different ways to accomplish this based on content and 'real estate' of the bottle itself."

For the Future

Alpha Packaging's Ms. Bielefeldt believes "sustainable" packaging will still be important five to 10 years down the road, but that the definition for sustainable may change over time to recognize recyclability of existing plastics as being just as "green" as developing new non-petroleum-based plastics. Also, she said, if recyclers can develop an FDA-approved method of recycling and repelletizing post-consumer HDPE resin for use in packaging for foods and pharmaceuticals, there could be a large market interested in post-consumer HDPE.

"What will likely remain the same," Ms. Bielefeldt commented, "is the emphasis on the performance of primary packaging (the bottles and jars) to protect the contents and make it convenient for consumers to purchase appropriate quantities of nutritional supplements, vitamins and nutraceuticals for their busy lifestyle."

Finally, Ms. Bielefeldt pointed out, as more emphasis is placed on packaging waste, she predicts that secondary packaging (cartons, shrinkwraps, etc.) will become less common as packagers attempt to minimize their use of non-critical packaging materials.

Tetra Pak also believes sustainability will be an increasing concern for its customers and the industry as consumers continue to demand more environmental responsibility in packaging. "We cannot ignore growing consumer and media interest in the concept of sustainable packaging," the company said. "Recent studies have shown that there is a shift taking place in consumer awareness as a result of growing attention to this issue among the industry and the media."

While many industries are still stagnating (or worse) in the current bleak economy, Tetra Pak believes sustainable strategies will provide the packaging industry with a silver lining to the downturn. "The industry remains poised for growth across all sectors, but in particular, sustainable packaging as a part of the global food and beverage packaging industry is expected to grow by 32% by 2014, according to Pike Research," the company said. "In some areas, there will be more downsizing and concentrating (such as has been done with laundry detergent), which will save on packaging material. We expect that more packaging companies will follow our example and focus on source reduction, renewable material use and recycling to drive energy efficiency and responsibility."

In the context of environmental trends, Mr. Gentile of Xela Pack is worried about "greenwashing." "The average consumer is aware of environmental debates such as paper vs. plastic, and is vaguely knowledgeable about the value of recycled materials and renewable energy," he said. "However, there are plenty of companies that are claiming to be 'green' based on having one or two products made with recyclable materials and/or are recyclable.

"Many of these companies do nothing else to be environmentally conscious and are clearly doing the bare minimum to maintain the label," Mr. Gentile added. "The term being applied to this is greenwashing."

During the next few years, Mr. Gentile believes awareness will help break down the current state of greenwashing and make it harder for companies to pose as being environmentally conscious without meeting some basic standards. "Whether this awareness will be led by outside consumer groups or from within the packaging industry (and other industries) remains to be seen," he commented.

Rexam's Mr. Wesselmann offered his view of the future through the lens of functional beverages. "There will be some clear winners who will have brands that mean something. But just like any product out there, the packaging evolves with the category," he said. "In my mind, there have been very few passing fads in this market. For instance, a lot of people questioned RTD (ready-to-drink) teas and drinkable yogurt, and they wound up being very successful. Now we're questioning coconut water, but I will tell you that it is going to be big."

In the more distant future, Cortegra's Mr. Srivatsa discussed the potential for interactive packaging. "I think packaging is going to become more interactive in 10 years. Right now it is not. It protects the product, transports the product and communicates about the product," he said. "But the next phase will involve 'smart' packaging, featuring technology that enables the package to talk to consumers about the product. It won't only be the picture or words that speak to you, but there will be person who will actually explain the product."

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