Nanotechnology in active packaging: Willing consumers still wary of “contamination,” survey finds

Nanotechnology in active packaging: Willing consumers still wary of “contamination,” survey finds

21 Feb 2019 --- Consumers are increasingly willing to use nanotechnology-based solutions in food packaging, but they are wary of how the essential oils – used to prevent spoilage – may “contaminate” foods, a report carried out by the EU-funded NanoPack Project has revealed. The survey informs NanoPack’s continued testing of the technology, which is forecast to reach Technology Readiness Level 7 (Demonstration in an operational environment) by the end of the project (December 2019).

Active food packaging technologies are often touted as offering increased food safety, extended shelf-life, improved freshness and reduced food waste. To examine how end-users perceive nanotechnology and its benefits, the NanoPack Project conducted research on the acceptance of new active food packaging technologies among consumers and retailers.

In the NanoPack system, naturally-occurring mineral nanotubes are dispersed in plastic packaging films and fixed there so that they don’t come into contact with the food. These nanotubes contain essential oils with antimicrobial properties that can prevent the growth of mold. The NanoPack Project is developing customized food packaging for a range of food products, including bread, fresh meat and fish, dairy and fruits and vegetables, Dr. Nina McGrath, Senior Manager, Food and Health Science at EUFIC, explains to PackagingInsights.

“The nanotubes hold natural essential oils extracted from plants such as oregano and thyme. The antimicrobial oils are slowly released as a vapor from the films into the packaging headspace and they kill or slow the growth of the bacteria and molds that can make food go off,” she adds.Click to EnlargePrototype NanoPack packaging systems. The films are clear with no visible differences to typical packaging. 

To gauge consumer acceptance of the use of such technologies in the mainstream, NanoPack organized ten focus groups and conducted ten in-depth interviews with consumers and retail managers in China, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Ireland.

The findings revealed that, in the case of the NanoPack solution, consumers were not concerned with the “nanotechnology” aspect. Instead, participants expressed more concern over the inclusion of essential oils and the “active” nature of the technology, with which they were not familiar. They expressed concerns that food products would become “contaminated” or “altered” after the active component was released in the packaging atmosphere.

“The benefits of active packaging solutions are not always aligned in consumers’ minds,” says Polymeros Chrysochou, Associate Professor at the Aarhus University of Denmark, who, together with Alexandra Festila, Assistant Professor at the same university, conducted the research. “So, for example, extending the shelf-life of a product and keeping its freshness seems to be a contradiction in consumers’ minds.”

“Freshness is a rather vague promised benefit and people have different interpretations of it,” notes Chrysochou. “They may perceive it in terms of the time passed from the production, where a shorter time equates a fresher food product. This means that consumers do not see a product with an extended shelf life as being necessarily fresh since a longer time has passed since production.”

In terms of retailers, the research demonstrated that the main concern was that the new technologies meet product safety criteria. Only after this has been resolved, can it be aligned with the “strategy and internal processes” of the company.

McGrath tells PackagingInsights that NanoPack has a strong focus on developing the products from all angles, which includes safety.Click to EnlargeResults of shelf-life extension tests on bread packed with NanoPack films.

“Concern about impacts on health and the environment is a potential barrier limiting widespread use of nanotechnologies in food packaging. Therefore, health and environmental safety assessments of NanoPack’s products and processes are prioritized.”

Such assessment activities include migration studies, investigation of toxicological and ecotoxicological profiles of oils, exposure assessment during production and product application and human and environmental risk assessment. All activities are conducted with the aim of ensuring that NanoPack packaging meets the European regulatory safety requirements for food contact materials, McGrath notes.

NanoPack is currently carrying out pilot tests of all packaging production stages on existing pilot production lines in order to ensure that products are commercially and industrially feasible. 

A market ready for innovation
The primary aim of food packaging is to protect and elongate a product’s shelf-life. In this way, packaging plays a major role in the reduction of food waste, which has become a topic of concern to many consumers.

By 2025, at least 55 percent of municipal waste (from households and businesses) should be recycled, says the European council, as agreed with Council of Ministers. The target will rise to 60 percent by 2030 and 65 percent by 2035. Regarding food waste, member states should aim to reduce food waste by 30 percent by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030. This is in line with the UN sustainable development goals.

The consumer willingness toward active packaging identified in the NanoPack survey was mirrored in a recent report published by Fruit Logistica which anticipated “significant innovation” in fresh produce packaging and supply chain management in the coming years. This prediction is based on increased consumer awareness of the environmental damage caused by food packaging and the need for greater shelf-life and efficiency in the supply chain.   

In response to these challenges, Fruit Logistica expects to see “significant innovation” in three key areas:

  • Firstly, while minimizing the overall use of plastic, Fruit Logistica expects to see increased use of recycled plastics in the packaging of easy-healthy convenience products.
  • Secondly, the company expects the introduction of modified production processes in combination with new forms of stable packaging, including packaging within a protective atmosphere.
  • Thirdly, Fruit Logistica expects innovative forms of supply, such as the increased use of urban (vertical) farming.

One such company innovating to improve fresh fruit and vegetable shelf-life is UK-based technologists, It’s Fresh! The company’s latest shelf-enhancing product, Infinite, is a new sustainable delivery system that utilizes a proprietary “active ingredient” that can be printed directly onto existing packaging for fruit, vegetables and even flowers. It is proven to prolong shelf-life and extend freshness and quality by absorbing the natural ripening hormone, ethylene.

“The packaging of fruit and vegetables is a sophisticated and highly skilled industry, it does not exist merely to increase real estate for marketing purposes, but to protect and maintain freshness and quality during its journey through the supply chain and into the home,” Simon Lee, Co-Founder, It’s Fresh!, tells PackagingInsights.

Infinite will be trialed by its launch partner, UK supermarket Morrisons, in 2019. Like all other It’s Fresh! products, it will be available globally after the trial period.

By Laxmi Haigh

This feature is provided by's sister website, PackagingInsights.

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