The “Greening” of Functional Food Packaging
Sustainable packaging is emerging as an important functional food purchasing driver.
Nowadays, conversations are filled with eco-conscious buzzwords like “hybrid,” “green” and “environmental responsibility.” In consumer goods packaging circles the biggest buzzword of them all is probably “sustainability.” Every segment of the consumer goods industry is working to increase the green factor of their packaging, including the functional food and beverage segment, where consumer interest in health and wellness pertains both to a product’s perceived health value as well as the environmental responsibility of its packaging. Plainly put, the functional food and beverage category is not only ripe with new product ideas, but also packaging possibilities when it comes to attracting the consumer’s eye.
“Early on, functional foods provided specific benefits or had inherent qualities that would provide something to the person taking it,” noted Jim Dicks, general manager for nutritional products, TetraPak of Vernon Hills, IL. “Today the functional food segment is worth $31 billion (Nutrition Business Journal) and looks at everything from 100-calorie cookie packs all the way to things that are truly functional like Benecol, etc.”
The challenges that brand owners have to address during the product development phase, according to Mr. Dicks, is “what does this product do” and “how can the package communicate this to the consumer.”
TetraPak’s aseptic package, originally designed for packaging fluid milk, is proving to be an increasingly popular choice, both for its consumer friendliness and eco-consciousness. “We’ve gotten better at understanding how to process sensitive ingredients,” explained Mr. Dicks. “As consumer demands have become more complex we’ve learned how to process sensitive ingredients like omega 3, vitamins and minerals in a way that [yields] minimal degradation. With homogenization and blending techniques, we can zero in on how to deliver the best sensory and minimal degradation to the type of product.”
To that end, the company develops product concepts to showcase how its packaging is suitable for more than just standard fluid milk. It’s most recent product is True Health, a low acid, milk-based product that delivers between 75 and 100 mgs of omega 3 fish oil per eight oz. serving.
The company also created Healthy Kidz Immunity Boost. Launched at IFT this year, the product is a milk-based prebiotic beverage that’s vitamin-fortified. The key ingredient is inulin, a prebiotic that contributes to digestive health by stimulating growth of good bacteria in the large intestine. “When you look at all the data about the trends in consumer health care, you’re seeing more preventative care than ever in the areas of brain health, heart health and immunity,” commented Mr. Dicks. “We saw immunity as a huge area. Although we can’t play the probiotic game because we sterilize everything in our containers, we can play the prebiotic game. Probiotics can’t survive without a prebiotic as their fuel and we can supply the fuel for those probiotics so they can provide the benefits inherent with live cultures. Thus we developed this concept (also taking into account the convenience of Airborne), a premixed, ready-to-drink product fortified with vitamins A, C, D and E, as well as zinc and inulin, which is a natural fiber for kids.”
The Healthy Kidz beverage also served as a platform uniting the functional food movement with the green movement because its aseptic brick package is a 75% fiber based, renewable, recyclable resource. “Sustainability has always been one of our key messages,” said Mr. Dicks, who pointed out that TetraPak plants more trees than it harvests each year to satisfy its paper supply. “Consumers in the general health and wellness category are able to recognize an inherent equity of the quality of an aseptic carton.”
More Work to Do
The next goal for TetraPak, according to Mr. Dicks, is to take the packaging industry’s eco-consciousness to the next level by trying to raise consumer awareness about the benefits of ambient products. “Elimination of green house gases and doing things that don’t require refrigeration saves tons of energy,” he said. “We’re doing work on life cycle analysis that will help us, brand owners and consumers understand the real value of aseptic cartons, beyond just increased shelf life.”
The implications of how much energy could be saved if refrigeration were excised from the whole chain are worth looking into said Mr. Dicks, but the limitations involve changing consumer perceptions – something that’s already begun in other categories. “If you go down the nutritional products aisle where there’s Boost, Ensure and all the sports nutrition and diet products, all of that stuff is ambient. That’s about a $700-$800 million category and no one blinks an eye when they buy these shelf-stable packages,” he said. “The reality is that in that segment, consumers have already been trained to understand the benefits and how they can consume those types of products without fear.”
Consumers are open and willing to accept the promises of new functional foods and beverages now more than ever. So too are they willing to accept products that are packaged responsibly. There has never been a more advantageous time for brand developers to drive home the message of sustainable packaging, both from a corporate and a consumer goods vantage point.