'Active' packaging is playing a growing role in the ever-increasing popularity of convenience foods across Europe. Jonathan Baillie reports

Countless studies tell us 21st century consumers are ever-more cash-rich and time poor. There may no longer be “enough hours in the day”, but our 24-hour society has brought significant selling opportunities to brand owners and retailers, perhaps nowhere more so than in the burgeoning convenience food sector. Here the UK leads Europe, both in the sophistication and variety of dishes on offer and in consumption terms. UK consumers apparently devour an average 16kg per capita of ready/convenience meals dishes annually, more than their counterparts anywhere else in Europe.

While food critics may decry some ready meals’ lack of authenticity, and some dieticians slam their “unhealthy” ingredients, our frenetic lifestyles, the desire to try something different at home, and a lack of time and energy mean our love affair with ready meals has never been more intense.

Nor does their popularity look like decreasing. A recent study of the European ready meal market by Danish research consultancy The Institute for Food Studies & Agroindustrial Development reveals that, while total European market volumes for frozen microwaveable food were around 403 000t in 2002, by 2007 the figure will be around 525 000t. Similar figures for chilled microwaveable foods predict the 2002 market volume of 578 000t rising to 775 000t by 2007.

While dual ovenable dishes have become ever-more familiar, growth in microwaveable convenience and snack foods has been staggering. IFAU managing director Karen Thorsted Hamann says UK consumers embraced microwaving’s advantages years ago, but now even shoppers in “more conservative” countries like Italy, that have traditionally viewed microwaves purely as a means of defrosting or reheating, are recognising their advantages in preparing complete meals.

So, how are packaging companies responding? One firm that has developed specialist microwaveable packaging expertise is Danish flexible packaging manufacturer Neoplex, which was acquired by the Frantschach Group last October and, last month, became part of the Mondi Group on the South African conglomerate’s acquisition of 100% of Frantschach’s shares.

Neoplex’s patented neoCrisp system enables foods like spring rolls and pizzas to be microwaved so they emerge “perfectly crisp”. Quality assurance manager Jan Matthiesen says: “Others have tried producing microwave packs that will brown and crispen foods but often the results have been disappointing. Sometimes the outer ends up charred while the food in the centre ends up not evenly cooked through.”

neoCrisp packs combine a high quality paper printable outer, laminated to polyester with a metallised susceptor layer in between. The patterned safety susceptor material reflects microwaves, producing the temperature necessary for a degree of crispness that Neoplex says has “never before been possible”. Matthiesen explains: “The metal absorbs the microwave energy and converts it into heat. The paper outer retains its shape, while the packaging’s design enables venting of moisture during cooking.”

The safety susceptor material is applied in a ‘fused’ pattern to prevent fire if it becomes overloaded. Matthiesen adds: “We had to overcome the traditional hurdle that you cannot use metal in a microwave. The susceptor is just microns thick but works extremely effectively.”

Key users of neoCrisp include Danish company Daloon for spring rolls, together with Norwegian food company Orkla’s Procordia subsidiary and Aldi in Germany, both of which are supplying neoCrisp pizza slice packs. Neoplex says the system is suitable for many foods traditionally “almost impossible” to crisp conventionally in the microwave – even French fries. Business and convenience food manager Dan Johannessen adds: “We see numerous potential applications from breaded fish and chicken wings to apple pies.”

Quality steaming

Another Neoplex innovation, neoSteam, is for microwave steam cooking meats, fish, ready meals, vegetables, pasta and rice. Matthiesen explains: “Microwave steam cooking packs are not new but neoSteam differs in that foods like root vegetables, salmon and complete ready meals can now be cooked so the food’s texture remains excellent, colour is maintained, it loses none of its natural properties, more of the vitamin content is retained and it tastes really appetising. Contrast this with some microwave steam cooking systems where food dries out or ends up soggy or tasteless.”

neoSteam packs typically comprise a polyethylene/polyester laminate incorporating small ‘valve’ areas in the seam at either end of the pack. Here the adhesive is replaced by a patented coating material which dissolves when exposed to steam during cooking, delaminating a small section and allowing internal overpressure and vapour to escape. neoSteam packs use the VacSys steam valve system from Japanese developer Packs & Co. Neoplex is one of only two European licensees, the other being UK-based Global Sealing Technologies.

Matthiesen elaborates: “Many existing steam cooking packs rely on piercing holes in the lid. These often just boil the food rather than properly steam cook it. The neoSteam valve is operated by a slit in the PE layer. We can tailor opening times and valve widths to accommodate different foods’ characteristics.”

On the reel convenience

Matthiesen emphasises that a major further neoSteam benefit, especially over packs incorporating an externally applied valve, is that the laminate material is supplied on the reel, already incorporating the valve, eliminating the need for additional application equipment.

One major neoSteam user is Belgian frozen food producer CROP’s, which has enjoyed considerable success with the packs for lines likes its SteamExpress frozen mixed and single vegetables for microwave cooking. Top Belgian supermarket chain Delhaize was among the first users and is now using neoSteam single serve containers from CROP’s for six single and mixed vegetable bowls, one asparagus tray [with neoSteam film lid], and two pillow packs containing vegetables like petite pois and carrots.

CROP’s marketing manager Chantal Poppe adds: “Delhaize tells us 12.5% of its frozen food sales are now generated by steam cooking packs.” Other high profile users of neoSteam packs from CROP’s include French retail chain Picard and Dutch supermarket giant Albert Heijn.

Poppe adds: “We hope soon to conclude a significant UK breakthrough via our UK arm, Luton-based MDC [which CROP’s part owns] which has had positive talks with several supermarkets.”

According to Neoplex’s Dan Johannessen, the company is also talking direct with all the major UK multiples about neoSteam. “Our Danish plants are simultaneously continuing research into adapting the technology to create retortable pouches for foods like soups and sauces which can be put straight into the microwave without snipping or piercing. The key challenge is to develop seals which will not open during retorting, but will during microwaving to allow venting.”

One of Europe’s biggest plastic food packaging producers, Cryovac Europe, will shortly launch its own microwave packaging breakthrough. Its Milan research and development centre and Poole, UK, factory for rigid containers have perfected a self-venting microwaveable steam cooking modified atmosphere pack for chilled goods which, according to business development manager for Europe Francesco Arena, is especially suitable for low fat, protein, protein and vegetable and carbohydrate-based foods.

“The Steam Cook pack features a small pre-soaked pad, and channels for steam distribution inside the tray bottom,” he says. “The lidding incorporates a small label which the consumer peels off before placing the container in the microwave, exposing a small pre-calibrated aperture. Once the pack begins heating, the pad generates and diffuses steam evenly for high quality cooking, with the excess vapour escaping through the lid. The PP tray has a sealable laminate lid applicable on any lidding machine fitted with the right tooling. Arena says the company is talking to several potential users, with the first application likely to be for fish.

Amcor Flexibles Europe’s new and aptly named Cool pack, which never gets too hot to handle, is a self-venting microwaveable pouch made from a transparent PP-based barrier laminate. The venting is provided via a small opening within a widened seal section at the top of the pack. As pressure builds during microwaving excess steam escapes through the aperture.

The opening’s size and position can be tailored to the food’s physical and cooking characteristics, while a distinct hiss as pressure escapes provides an interactive element.

&#8220UK consumers apparently devour an average 16kg per capita of ready/convenience meals dishes annually, more than their counterparts anywhere else in Europe”

Amcor Flexibles’ Europe group director, innovation, design and marketing Jonathan Fowle says the pack is ideally suited to “more solid” foods like meat in sauce, pasta and rice.

“We have also recently modified our SoftValve coffee pack system for use in ready meal lidding films for products like microwaveable chilled vegetables,” he explains.

“The valve system was first developed to address how to pack fresh coffee more effectively. The challenge there has always been how best to expel the CO2 produced during packing while simultaneously keeping oxygen out. The conventional solution is to attach a rigid valve during pouchmaking but this can be expensive.”

Fowle explains that in contrast Soft Valve, a three-ply laminate system and its successor, the two-ply VentValve, rely on a strategically sited channel in the laminate pack’s longitudinal seal containing a special silicon oil.

With movement of the oil a capillary action occurs, allowing the CO2 to filter out of the pack but keeping air out. There are no external valves to attach. The user simply runs the laminate through the packaging line as usual. The VentValve lidding has just seen its first application in Spain for microwaveable vegetables.

Vending machine potential

The latest microwaveable pack from RPC Containers is designed for busy people wanting a fast, tasty snack they can take anywhere and quickly reheat. Recently used for Crosse & Blackwell’s Hunger Breaks ambient convenience meals, it combines RPC Corby’s 350ml Royale Bowl, thermoformed in multi-layer PP for a long shelf life, with an EVOH oxygen barrier layer.

The pack’s lid and fork are injection-moulded from a single tool in one operation. The fork hinges into a recess in the lid and the consumer simply breaks it off when the meal is ready to be eaten. The lid also has small venting holes for steam to escape.

The pack was created in conjunction with RPC’s customer Premier Foods, with the final lid solution developed by RPC’s Raunds Design Department.

“Our pack offers extended shelf life and ease of preparation in a single solution,” says RPC Corby Thermoforming sales manager Mike Thomson. “It is also ideal for vending machines, which increasingly incorporate a microwave.”

Another pack designed for rapid no-fuss preparation is Thermotic Developments’ Direct Steam Heating container. Still under development, it incorporates a lime/water mixture in the base which generates steam to heat the contents on being user-activated.

Currently acting as Thermotics’ major development partner is Robinson Plastic Packaging, whose sales and marketing director Nigel Williams explains: “The pack, which we are co-developing in injection-moulded pot form, eliminates the need to use microwave or oven. We are working together to perfect the activating mechanism. It might, for instance, be a device the user twists to cause a precise amount of water and lime to mix inside the base. The resulting chemical reaction will generate steam, which will then diffuse into the top section containing a meal such as pre-cooked pasta, heating it in as little as three minutes.

“It is not certain yet whether we will use a perforated film to filter the steam, or perhaps a valve. We already have strong interest from a major UK brand owner and a British retailer. Williams acknowledges packs that generate heat via a lime/water reaction are not new, but says previously cooking times have often been “anything up to 15 minutes”.

Thermotic Developments was the company behind Nestle’s Hot When you Want It three-piece can, launched in 2002 for its Nescafe coffee, which incorporated a simple heat exchanger in its base which used a quicklime/water reaction to create conductive heat, heating the contents to around 400C.

Thermotic director Matthew Searle elaborates: “Nestle test marketed 6M cans in the UK. However, our earlier process only heated the container to 450 deg C – fine if activation occurred at room temperature but no good on cold days. That drawback, branding problems [there was little on the can to tell consumers they were getting an added-value product], the relatively high retail price and some manufacturing issues meant the can was never a full-scale commercial success.”

Thermotic subsequently re-launched itself purely as a product development company and has now perfected a way to generate and diffuse steam from one pack section to another, using modified quicklime/water chemistry, which Searle says will heat even viscous products, like soups, [the earlier system only worked with non-viscous foods] to around 990 deg C in under three minutes.

He adds: “We anticipate Robinson launching a ready meal product early next year, but the process will work equally well with many other chilled and ambient foodstuffs. We have even conducted successful tests heating board-packaged sandwich wraps. We are now seeking other development partners.”

Tailor-made meals

Looking to the future, Bristol-based designer Kinneir Dufort presented at this year’s Total its concept for “personalised” food packs which could be created “on the spot” at special vending machines. The premise behind the Just For Me concept is that “brands which involve consumers in ways beyond pure consumption will gain a competitive advantage”.

Predictions that we will soon all be able to tailor-make meals wherever we are may appear fanciful, but IFAU’s Hamann believes they are “entirely realistic”. She says: “While some of the last decade’s convenience food developments have vindicated the sector’s claims to be a genuine innovator, I believe the next 10 years will see even more ground-breaking packaging breakthroughs.”