From Surface to Substance: Global Packaging Trends in the Food Industry  

From sustainability to food safety, packaging has become a key factor in end-to-end supply chains and business strategies. Following the release of a new report by global packaging company Tetra Pak, FIA speaks to Mr Douglas Hughes, Director of R&D Packaging Development at Mondelēz International on the global trends which are influencing the packaging of foods in Asia and how the industry is responding through innovation and R&D. Companies are rising to the challenge of innovation in packaging for diverse reasons including curbing food waste, ensuring food safety, responding to trends in health and nutrition, and adapting to shifts in consumer lifestyles. This article outlines some of the global best practices in packaging innovation and how they are being adopted in Asia.

According to Tetra Pak, the five leading trends in packaging are environmental awareness, the engaged experience, health and nutrition, food safety, and consumers’ 24/7 lifestyle. The report describes how customers are heightening their focus on business environmental practices, signalling their demand for sustainable packaging as well as broader corporate transparency and accountability. Retailers and manufacturers across many industries, including the food industry, are making strides to continually innovate and utilise new forms of packaging, while being ever-mindful of the associated sustainability and safety implications.

At Mondelēz International, Mr Hughes sees sustainability as the leading trend in packaging globally, with increasing emphasis on responsible approaches to the environment. It has become an essential part of business strategy and planning for consumer goods companies throughout their supply chains, including the ever-important aspect of packaging. For instance, at Mondelēz International, sustainability is one of the core areas in its global corporate “Call for Well-being” strategy. Reflecting the company’s efforts to reduce their environmental footprint, they are spearing towards the elimination of 50 million pounds (22,500 metric tonnes) of packaging by 2015. As of 2013, they have been on-target by eliminating 48 million pounds of packaging.

While sustainability is an important issue globally, in Asia perhaps the most important factor for innovation in packaging is the drive to curb food waste. Packaging has a vital role to play in containing and protecting food as it moves through the supply chain to the consumer. However, this route to the market is often complex, especially in Asia. Issues arising from the lack of air-conditioning, cleanliness, and heating capacities all have an impact on product quality and shelf life, and require companies to invest in packaging innovation.

Mr Hughes believes that greater attention should be given to where and why food waste in the supply chains occurs.

“Lifestyles and consumption patterns of consumers are changing. It is important that packaging developments cater to this shift so as to ensure that the highest percentage of food products get consumed and not wasted. At the same time, innovations in packaging materials, design and labelling provide new opportunities to improve efficiencies,” he said.

While sustainability is paving the way, food safety is increasing in prominence. Consumers are becoming more concerned and looking for reassurance that products are trustworthy and safe. According to the Tetra Pak report, packaging is designed to give quality assurance through safety seals, and traceability to understand where products really come from. The trend towards locally sourced products and the usage of maps, flags or local symbols, to clearly state where the product comes from helps to convey the message. Companies are investing in R&D to ensure that the most innovative measures are taken to ensure food safety in Asia’s unique supply chains.

Mr Hughes believes that food safety begins at the start with the sourcing of safe raw materials at the local level. He said, “Ensuring food safety at all levels of the supply chain is essential. This will ensure that dangerous substances or chemicals do not contaminate the products along the way. What helps is for companies to look to local suppliers so as to reduce costs and potential safety hazards.”

Health is becoming more a front-of-mind issue with consumers, who are also viewing their health from a holistic perspective, presenting further opportunities for companies to innovate in packaging. Tetra Pak suggests that consumers are becoming more health savvy with a penchant for more natural, healthy food choices that do not compromise on taste. Brands are adopting new and hip aesthetics to express health rather than traditional ‘medicinal’ cues. Furthermore, packaging allows companies to communicate consumer health needs better through nutrition labeling for example.

Now, more than ever before, consumers are looking for packaging that is unique to their needs and for an engaging experience with products. One such example is through gift giving where packaging plays a huge part in fulfilling emotional needs. The report also highlights that brands can use humor as a great tool to catch consumers’ attention. There are playful approaches to everyday products like hidden messages, mixing illustrations with photography, and choices of unexpected materials. Most importantly, packaging should strive to find a balance between ‘standing out’ from the crowd and still being relevant.

Finally, it is known that consumers lead increasingly busy and mobile lifestyles. Convenient products become a key need for ‘on-the-go’ consumers looking for instant gratification. Tetra Pak suggests that the trend is for brands to balance convenience with ‘culinary and aesthetical indulgence’ along with health all rolled into one. Designs that speak quality while offering a personalised and home-made experience are on the rise.

For the food industry, many of these trends present opportunities, particularly in terms of innovation to optimise the use of limited packaging space, as well as the chance to add value and new features. At the same time, these trends emphasise key implications for future business. What is certain is that packaging solutions have to be smart, cost effective yet practical to meet the changing market and sustainability needs. Captilising on technology, efforts can be channelled into finding cost-optimised packaging and easy to re-open and re-close options that will enhance packaging solutions further.

Ultimately, Mr Hughes believes that to address these challenges, knowledge, training and innovation are essential. “The ability of this region to address resource challenges and offer opportunities to its growing population such that everyone is able to thrive, will depend on a combination of smart approaches to urban development, government leadership, rising public awareness of the challenges, and the active participation of both citizens and business,” he said.

FIA issues regular e-bulletins with analysis on relevant food and beverage industry issues across the region. To subscribe to this service, please click here.