Relentless consumer demand for convenience means that food products must save on preparation time through faster cooking methods in dishes that do not have to be washed up. As the boundaries that define convenience expand, packaging must provide the solutions. Rodney Abbott reports

Behavioural change is inevitable and, whether we like it or not, the stresses and pressures of everyday working and living is driving traditional cooking methods underground.

Most people today want to spend as little time as possible in the kitchen. They either want to work or play.

The increase in retail sales of microwave ovens since the mid 90s, rising from over 1.6M in 1997 to over 2.5M in 2002, is also driving demand for packaging that delivers high quality microwave products says a recent Mintel report. By 2000, 76% of British households had a microwave oven, a 48% increase since the beginning of the decade.

The surge in sales of microwave ovens has undoubtedly had a huge impact on packaging developments in recent years, particularly of products designed to be re-heated in the microwave such as ready meals, oven chips, and microwaveable pizza.

The trend towards smaller household size and increased snacking, resulting in smaller pack sizes, presents a communication challenge, particularly as consumers are demanding more information about products and how to use them.

Today’s pack has become an important vehicle for displaying health claims, nutritional values, recipes, usage ideas and detailed storage and cooking instructions, in addition to all the information that is legally required.

EU legislation, due to come into effect in 2005 and requiring that constituents of compound ingredients making up less than 25% of the product are listed in full, will result in even longer ingredients lists. Outside of the barcode, solutions such as concertina lids are bound to become more common.

Copies of the report are available from the Mintel International Group Ltd, 18-19 Long Lane, London EC1A 9PL, price £545 for a hard copy and £545+VAT for an electronic copy.

According to an independent report carried out among 700 food processors by Huhtumaki, PP is suitable for many convenience food concepts coming onto the market.

“PP offers improved barrier properties to increase the shelf life of products, which is identified in the report as the third concern among manufacturers after material strength and price,” says general manager of Huhtamaki’s Consumer Goods Division Robert Witherington.

“About 75% of food processors see packaging innovation as important to their business with 85% claiming it is key to the success of a product as it provides shelf standout and differentiates products from those of their competitors. This is so vital that 50% of respondents say they change the external look of their packaging every two years. Only 6% never vary at all.

“One way of achieving packaging innovation is through advances in print technologies, which is a popular method among food manufacturers, yet only 25% have in-house printing facilities with the remaining out-sourcing it to specialised companies.”

As would be expected food safety is an area that rates highly in the report and one that food manufacturers have tackled through various devices. The most popular method at the moment is tamper-evident seals with 30% of respondents saying that they incorporate them into their packaging. In addition, 24% opted for external shrink-wrapping with integral barrier and foil or film tying in third place. Just 9% still rely on post-packaging applications to improve food safety.

Of the 30% of respondents that currently use tamper-evident seals, 21% have done so in the past 12 months. With 57% of companies currently not using them, it is an area of huge potential within the consumer goods sector.

Huhtamaki’s Barrier Plus is a plastics packaging which incorporates both active and passive barriers within the container walls to prevent permeation by oxygen. This extends the shelf life of ambient products to up to a year which means consumers can buy more products less frequently and store them for longer periods at a time.

The pots are ideal for applications requiring retort, meaning food manufactures can offer a range of products from soups, pastas and baked beans in plastics rather than metal cans and glass jars. They can be placed in a microwave straight from ambient where they will be ready in minutes.

Heinz was one of the first companies to take advantage of Huhtamaki’s Barrier Plus technology when it launched its Classic range of soups in 300g Barrier Plus pots. Following this initial launch, further additions included Big Soups, Weight Watchers Soups and Pasta.

Barrier Plus has the potential to replace metal cans or glass jars due to the greater flexibility it offers. It offers versatility of pack designs as a range of shapes and sizes can be produced which can then be attractively decorated without the high cost of tooling associated with traditional long shelf life materials.

Recognising consumer needs for microwave products, Huhtamaki developed the Heat ‘n’ Hold concept which offers insulation for both hand-held hot and cold snack products.

German owned Südpack UK is also fully embracing the microwave trend with Ecovent, a new pack concept that addresses the problems associated with reheating bread and pastry based products in the microwave.

Traditional results are soggy bread/pastry with moisture retention and general denaturing of the structure. By using a combination of self-venting film, dielectric card sleeve and controlled modified atmosphere Ecovent provides re-heating results comparable to those from a traditional oven.

Südpack’s customer, Eatwell UK, re-launched its range of products a year ago in the Ecovent pack and has seen a massive increase in both sales and market penetration. Its product has been relaunched under the brand of Fast Feasters and is predicted to take the market by storm.

The pack has already won recognition by winning a number of awards. Südpack are now looking forward to hearing the results of the 2003 Consumer Convenience Award, sponsored by the IoP, in which they are finalists.

The pack is engineered in such a way that the time of venting and the pressure level generated during cooking can be adjusted to result in a cook quality from the microwave comparable to that of a conventional oven but in a fraction of the time. The ability to control such factors is essential when tailoring the pack to the food inside.

Ecovent was initially based on flow wrap principles but Südpack then considered how the system could use semi-rigid materials for thermoform and pre-formed tray applications.

The company also makes Ecoterm, a semi-rigid multi-layer material constructed of PP and EVOH and designed to be microwave safe.

This product is intended to be a cost-effective viable alternative to the microwave valve and pressure release systems that are currently in use for ready meal and vegetable dishes.

According to Linpac Plastics, safety and hygiene are key ingredients when they look at developing microwaveable packaging. The company recently extended its microwave range with the launch of Cool to Touch – a foam tray which, like its name suggests, remains cool to the touch even when food is piping hot.

This year Linpac has taken the tray a stage further with the introduction of an RFID chipped tray. The new system, which is currently being trialled with a leading European supermarket chain, can log the contents history including when and who packaged the product. The new tray has been designed to communicate cooking data to future microwaves.

Business development manager Trevor Komaromy told , Packaging Today International “Cool to Touch is available in MAP or non-MAP formats, ensuring product freshness and hygiene safety.”

Further developments with tray technology will soon see microwaved ready meals offering the home made touch – microwaved trays, which maintain the slow cooked flavour, will preserve product taste and texture, allowing classic recipes like pot roast with gravy and sirloin steak to be microwaved.

Customers within this food sector can choose rustic metal or smooth looking trays. These latest developments are reputed to eliminate food poisoning from undercooked frozen meat products.

Further products from Linpac Plastics include lidded microwaveable PP packaging that offers a high heat tolerance and fridge to microwave to dishwasher technology. The light yet tough packaging is also resistant to grease and oils, and features snap on lids with leak-resistant seals.

MeadWestvaco’s Printkote Ovenable is a bleached paperboard with a PET coating that provides a good barrier to oils and water. It allows food companies to eliminate expensive, excess or redundant packaging by creating one container that can go from the freezer or shelf to conventional or microwave ovens and then to the table.

Suitable for cartons that can withstand both the stress of freezers and the microwave, it offers savings over packages that require outer cartons and wraps and is ideal for eliminating excess packaging.

It is ovenable for pressed trays and cartons that are used to store, freeze, and heat prepared foods. A non-clay-coated surface, combined with an extruded PET coating, provides good barrier properties.

It is suitable for the manufacture of ovenable liner for pressed trays. In the corrugating process, the ovenable liner is combined with a middle layer of flute and an outer liner. It offers a good barrier to water and oils, and is suitable for either the microwave or conventional oven.

Veriplast International produces a range of disposable packaging products for use in the microwave.

The company’s Serve and Dine bowls are designed for serving hot dishes such as soup, casseroles or puddings. The injection-moulded PP bowls are transparent and have a frosted rim to enhance the surface appearance of foods, particularly those with a high fat content.

For piping hot portions the bowls are tough and practical, being both microwaveable and resistant to fats. For takeaway purposes, the tops can be sealed after filling for spill-free transportation.

There are also no concerns about customer and serving staff safety because the bowl handles remain cool to the touch after heating.

The bowls are available in three serving sizes from small single serve to family/multiple size serving. A meal-sized plate to be used alongside completes the range. Bespoke colours can also be considered for larger orders.

The company also produces a range of meal trays, which provide caterers with an ideal solution when serving food designed to be reheated in the microwave. The trays are available as single or multi-compartment units and have a variety of lids.

Ishida Europe’s recent acquisition of Qualitech Systems Handling has opened up new opportunities for the company in convenience foods.

Now including cutting edge technology in top-sealed tray packaging, denesting, filling and sealing equipment, Ishida can improve the packing and presentation of tray-sealed products such as microwaveable meals.

The accuracy of weighing and filling has a direct impact on the appearance of the finished pack. By optimising the complete packing line, manufacturers can be certain that their packing speeds, efficiency and product quality are improved while waste and labour costs are reduced.

Ishida’s inside cut tray sealing system makes economic use of film and offers a neat appearance.

A leading frozen food manufacturer is enjoying the taste of fast food, following installation of two new Europack tight wrappers.

Speed, flexibility and a compact footprint were essential ingredients for the replacement machines, which had to be able to handle a variety of products across a range of formats.

Capable of handling up to 300 cartons at 25 packs/min, the fully automatic, right angle machines incorporate an electronically controlled, built-in heat tunnel and a star wheel collator.

This takes flat-laying single file cartons, turns them onto their edge and counts them into the required pack format, prior to wrapping.

“Typically the machines had to handle products such as burgers and other shaped meat products. The machines had to be faster, smaller and more efficient than existing lines,” says Europack sales director Ivan Reeve.

Another innovator of microwaveable PP trays is Sharp Interpack which claims to offer the largest selection of shapes, colours and sizes in its standard range.

They are suitable for roast and fresh poultry, fish and meat, coated and breaded foods, ready meals, snacks and prepared vegetables. In addition, the company manufactures attractive two- and three-compartment trays for multi-product presentation.