Food packaging getting a bad (w)rap

Charmian Smith
Charmian Smith

Many of us would prefer our food to come with less packaging. We're in the middle of the ''Plastic-free July'' campaign, which encourages us to refuse single-use plastic packaging, and soft plastic recycling bins have recently appeared in local supermarkets.

''Packaging is controversial. A lot of people get quite upset with packaging and the excessive amounts of packaging used,'' says Dr Miranda Mirosa of the Department of Food Science at the University of Otago.

''Often you think packaging is just the place to put the brand name, but it's more than that. I think the argument is a bit more complex than just saying packaging in all cases is bad.''

The right packaging can ensure a product is safe, extend its shelf life and prevent tampering, she says.

In an ideal world where we bought food produced locally, brought our own reusable bags and ate the food before it deteriorated, we wouldn't need much packaging. However, the realities of our food system means some packaging is required, she said.

''And when we have such big issues as the amount of food that's going to waste it's important to take a whole life cycle approach and look at things like the economic impact of the packaging in comparison to the food waste.

''We know a lot of people are wasting food because it is being put in the fridge and forgotten and in those instances I think there's some fairly strong evidence that if you take a really holistic lifestyle approach and the resources that go into the packaging, it's less than wasting the food itself,'' she said.

Some food packaging is designed to extend the shelf life of the product, so it's usually better to leave your food in its packaging until you use it, she said.

We are already familiar with vacuum-packed meat, modified atmosphere packaging for salads and other fresh, minimally processed products, and little ethylene absorbing strips that slow ripening of strawberries and other fruit. These are all packaging technology trends that are trying to meet consumers' needs, she explained.

Because of conflicting information about how to store food, she and her students tested some and picked some winners. The results about how best to store the10 most commonly wasted foods to extend their shelf life are available on the Love Food Hate Waste website.

''I think for avocados we looked at 17 different ways people were told to store avocados and tested them all and were able to pick a winner.

''If you want to keep your cut avocado for as long as possible, the best thing you can do is to leave the pip in and wrap it in clingfilm with a tight seal and pop it in the fridge. The worst possible thing, worse than doing nothing at all, was to put lemon juice and olive oil on, which surprised a lot of people.''

However, there was some backlash from anti-packaging and anti-plastic groups, according to Dr Mirosa.

She pointed out that not everybody needs to keep half an avocado for eight days and there were alternatives, like a beeswax wrap, although it didn't keep as long.

Besides protecting food and keeping it fresh for longer, packaging also provides information such as ingredients lists, nutrition panels, storage advice, sometimes recipes, and QR codes - as well as the manufacturer's brand and marketing blurb.

''People can go on to smartphones and find information back through the supply chain as to, in some instances, which orchard this particular apple has come from - it's a bit far, but basically it's what they are trying to get to,'' she said.

Packaging is also designed to keep the food safe and trackable though the supply chain.

''In China there's a big trend towards anti-tampering packaging that has extra levels of security to show it hasn't been opened and refilled with something else. Packaging is playing a really important role in some of those food safety concerns and rightly so. They have had huge food scandals,'' she said.

While we are familiar with use-by and best-before dates which generally have a wide margin to ensure safety, new smart packaging could bypass this. It interacts with the product and provides actual information on the freshness of the product in real time and if it's at the correct temperature, she said.

''It uses smart technology to track the temperature it's been held at through the supply chain, again helping the consumer concern for safety and ever increasing desire for knowledge of the food and where it's come from.''

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