The Impact of Packaging on Shelf Life
Packaging plays an important role in optimizing the shelf life of food products. Maximizing shelf life can have a major impact on a brand’s success and has a major influence on brand reputation, cost of goods sold and sustainability.
Shelf life is a major factor that influences the amount of food waste produced each year. When food expires, manufacturers and retailers must destroy products that have already gone through the distribution cycle or are currently stored in a warehouse. According to a January 2020 report, the EPA estimates that more food – over 76 billion pounds per year – reaches landfills and combustion facilities than any other material in everyday trash, constituting 22% of discarded municipal solid waste, and plays a role in making landfills the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S.
On top of its impact on landfill space and emissions, food waste can also be very costly for manufacturers, retailers and consumers. That same EPA report includes an estimate by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that the value of food loss for retailers and consumers each year is more than $161 billion. Across the globe, food loss and waste have a combined carbon footprint of 4.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Packaging Factors that Impact Shelf Life
While every product is different, there are a handful of common factors that impact the shelf life of all perishable goods. Seal integrity plays a crucial role in maximizing shelf life for shelf-stable packaged food products, as well-sealed packaging provides thorough protection against microorganisms, outside moisture and oxygen.
Unanticipated microbial growth can result in product flavor changes, off-putting aromas, and degradation of quality, all of which can have a negative impact on consumers’ impression of a brand in addition to reducing shelf life. Moisture is a concern from two perspectives, as both outside moisture that gets into inadequately sealed packaging and the loss of a food product’s inherent moisture significantly impacts a product’s quality and leads to accelerated spoilage.
Oxidation is an especially significant concern for packaged foods with high fat content, such as potato chips and meat products, as oxygen can cause fats to deteriorate quickly. In some cases, it may make sense to use modified atmosphere packaging to limit the product’s exposure to oxygen and extend its shelf life.
Temperature is another important factor that impacts shelf life, especially for products that need to remain chilled or frozen as cold-chain packaging and processes play a growing role for brands in the food industry. While these products are processed, transported, stored and sold in controlled-temperature environments, unexpected temperature excursions can still happen during a product’s distribution cycle. Well-designed packaging can provide protection against those excursions until they’re returned to an environment with the proper temperature.
For some products, it may make sense to use active packaging that leverages technology to release or absorb contents in the packaging to extend shelf life. Examples of active packaging technology include scavengers that can absorb oxygen or moisture within the package or emitters that release carbon dioxide to inhibit microbe growth.
No matter which of these concerns apply to a product, it’s important to design packaging that will provide adequate protection throughout the distribution environment. Packaging that incurs significant damage during shipping or storage can significantly impact shelf life by compromising the packaging’s seal and increasing its risk of exposure to external factors that accelerate spoilage. Damaged packaging can still be an issue even when it doesn’t compromise the seal, as many consumers will hesitate to purchase a product that appears damaged, making it less likely to be sold before its expiration date. When designing packaging to protect perishable products, it’s important to think beyond the primary packaging to consider secondary or even tertiary packaging that ensures the product remains uncompromised as it moves through its distribution environment.
Lean on the Experts
For new brands designing packaging to maximize the shelf life of their products and established brands looking for ways to improve upon the shelf life of existing products, it can be helpful to leverage outside experts with experience optimizing packaging for shelf life. These packaging experts can provide guidance not only in the design of packaging and packaging processes that optimize shelf life, but also in selecting and managing tests such as accelerating aging tests, ambient and controlled temperature tests and distribution tests to ensure they fit the needs of the product and accurately simulate the conditions a product and its packaging will face during transportation and storage.
If you’re looking for help optimizing the shelf life of your products, get in touch. Adept Group has the experts to help guide the process from ideation through commercialization.