Consumers want to have their all-natural, no-preservative, chemical-free cake and eat it, too.
Food producers can sometimes feel like they’re being told to run in two different directions at once. Consumers increasingly expect their food to be free from complicated-sounding chemicals and contain ingredients that could be found in a kitchen cupboard. They also expect this same food to have a long shelf life. Unfortunately, those complicated-sounding chemicals have been a staple for food preservation for decades, have FDA approval, known properties, and are easy to order when they run out. Quite the conundrum.
The “clean label” movement, which has created this dilemma for manufacturers, is here to stay. It’s not a fad. Consumer demand for clean labeling is only going to increase. It’s your job as a food producer to work within the parameters that consumers expect. Thankfully, natural preservative and container technologies have advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years to the point where the natural alternatives often perform better than their chemical counterparts. These natural additives may cost more upfront, but remember that customers are willing to pay more for the food they perceive as safer and healthier.
Source: Packaging World
What are some ways you can satisfy the demand for more natural and less processed food while extending shelf life as long as possible?
Naturally Sourced Preservatives
Antimicrobials and antioxidants are necessary to keep food safe to eat. Many long-established chemical preservatives now have natural alternatives. The trick has been to get these alternatives to keep food safe while avoiding an awful flavor, after taste, or color side effects. A shelf-life extender that may work wonderfully well with meat might be a terrible addition to bread and vice-versa. While cured meats, for example, have relied on nitrates/nitrites, sodium phosphates, and a host of preservatives that are hard to pronounce, buffered vinegar is a natural alternative that can be added to meats, poultry, and fish that won't affect flavor or appearance but will fight against nasty pathogens like Listeria.
As for baked goods, non-GMO emulsifiers such as GRINDSTED NG 100 can keep yeast-raised bread and other goods soft and edible just as well or better than chemical-based emulsifiers like hydrated monoglycerides. Not only does this alternative additive meet the satisfaction of consumers looking for clean label foods, but it has benefits for your operation, too. GRINDSTED is powdered and only requires about a fifth as much to achieve the same results as liquid paste hydrates. The fact that it's powdered also means it's much lighter, saving on storage and transportation costs. Hydrates are also pretty unpleasant to work with, being messy and sticky by nature, and can even cause slipping hazards for employees.
Active bioprotective cultures can also protect food through a sort of microbial warfare. Microorganisms that are safe to humans, but either compete for the same resources as harmful pathogens or outright kill them, are introduced to the food, generally meat or poultry. A good example is lactic acid bacteria, which can ferment and reduce the food's pH, thus reducing the acidity and creating an unfriendly environment for organisms that contribute to spoilage.
Botanical extracts, spices, enzymes, all are being examined for their shelf-life extending properties. Scientists are working hard to improve upon the performance of traditional, chemical-based extenders in the process. Possible setbacks, such as reliance on seasonal crops for some of the sources of natural preservatives, are ultimately outweighed by the benefits, and any potential problems are being actively studied to find solutions.
Advanced Processing Aids
To further reduce foodborne pathogens, non-chemical processes that fight microbial threats can give you even more options to keep your food safe for the consumer.
- Photohydroionization (PHI): The process of PHI uses ultraviolet light and oxidizing gases to treat the surface of foods, generally meats and poultry. Since PHI doesn’t penetrate the surface, like x-ray or gamma radiation, ground meats must be treated when they’re still whole. The process is completely chemical-free, uses little energy, and is one of the most environmentally friendly processes for increasing food safety.
- Microwave-Assisted Thermal Sterilization (MATS): MATS reduces the amount of time food is exposed to high heat by using pressurized water and specific microwave frequencies for an amount of time tailored to the food being subjected to the process. This lower amount of time helps preserve the nutrients in the food as well as flavor and texture, all the while offering the same shelf life as traditionally processed foods.
You can’t just rely on the preservatives to do all the work when it comes to food safety. Inefficient and inferior packaging can still lead to food spoilage, even with the best shelf-life extenders. Let’s discuss some advanced packaging methods that can be used to protect your products.
- High-Pressure Processing (HPP): Even if your packages are completely sealed from outside air, pathogens can still be in the food. HPP takes hermetically sealed or airtight containers and puts them under extreme pressure. The pressure inhibits microbial and bacterial growth and keeps them from engaging in their normal biological functions, preventing them from spoiling the food.
- Active Packaging: Control over your packages’ interior environment is paramount in intelligent or active packaging. Controlled Atmosphere Packaging (CAP) and Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) make use of microporous barriers or materials such as ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH), aluminum foil, and metalized film, and can even incorporate nanotechnology. These packages contain control measures that actively preserve the food, such as desiccants or metal-chelating surfaces.
- Freeze Friendly Packaging: Not all packaging can be stored in freezing conditions. Polypropylene is a common polymer used, but it becomes brittle when put in the freezer. The addition of polyethylene can help polypropylene withstand cold temperatures but can take on a hazy appearance. If you want clear packages that can take freezing, freezer-grade polyethylene terephthalate is a good but expensive solution.
- Transparent Packaging: This does not mean “clear communication of ingredients and processes on your labels,” although that’s important, too. Literal transparency, in this case, is allowing consumers to see your product through the packaging. This isn’t so much about food safety as it is about showing your food to the consumer to increase trust.
One Final Consideration
We looked at ways you can extend the shelf life of your food and how those choices impact potential buyers. Another consideration worth investigating is how your labeling impacts those same buyers.
With your food and packaging meeting clean label standards, so should your labels. As you think about your labels, authenticity, transparency, traceability, and readability are important, but so is the application. Believe it or not, the smallest things can impact potential buyers' perceptions. Misapplied labels can reflect poorly on your brand, and in turn, affect shoppers’ trust in your product. If your labeling process leads to sloppy label application, what does that imply about your other processes? Don’t give consumers a chance to doubt your product. Label with confidence.
To be sure your labels are applied correctly on every package, consider upgrading from manual labeling to automatic labeling. An automatic labeler will prevent misaligned, misplaced, bubbled, creased labels. How? Check out our guide, The Food Manufacturer's Guide to Food and Beverage Labeling Equipment, to learn how to choose the best labeling machine for your packaging. Give shoppers every reason to pick up your products, and no reason to put them down.