Everything about food packaging: Tasks, application areas & material

Food packaging accompanies us every day: at breakfast with your favorite yogurt encased in a cup or during lunch with your favorite dish packed in a jar. In this 3-part blog series, we'll show you everything you need to know about food packaging. Today, we talk about tasks, applications and food packaging materials. In the second part, you'll learn more about sustainability in food packagingand in the third part, we will show you legal requirements and mandatory information for food labeling.

What’s the definition of food packaging?

Before we go into more detail about food packaging materials, such as paper or plastic, it's important to define the term "food packaging" to understand exactly what you need to consider when packaging your food. According to the German Food Association, food packaging is "the set of components predictably used to purposefully and releasably enclose a specific product (filling)" (German Food Association, 2010). Thus, the definition makes it clear that your food must be wrapped in some way and purposefully packaged to protect your product from external influences. However, food packaging not only serves as protection against external influences, such as dirt, but also for the safety of your customers, e.g. to protect your product against the development of germs that could have a negative impact on the health of your consumers.

What are the tasks of food packaging?

As briefly mentioned earlier, food packaging has several tasks. However, its primary task is to protect your food. This also means ensuring that the product arrives at your customers without scratches or damage, as designed and intended by you. Furthermore, food packaging is about food safety, which must guarantee that your food does not cause any health problems for your customers.

A secondary, but nevertheless relevant task is the facilitation of transport, which must ensure that your food arrives intact at the retailer and your customers. Two other important tasks of food packaging are aimed directly at your customers: Your food packaging serves as customer information and advertising. Product design, which has a strong focus on food packaging as a communication tool, is an important component and is discussed in our blog post "Why packaging is so important for your brand". With food packaging, it's at least as important, if not more so, that your customers know exactly what your product is and what your food is made of. If you are interested in this topic, please have a look at the third part of this series "Food packaging: Mandatory information and legal requirements".

Into which areas of application can food packaging be divided?

Depending on the industry and sector, the packaging for your food products will differ. To know exactly which materials and food packaging are relevant to you and your brand, industries can be well grouped into 6 categories:

  1. Bakery and confectionery: The bakery and confectionery industry ranges from rolls to bread to confections like donuts and muffins. Fresh products, such as freshly baked cakes, can be sold to your customers in cardboard boxes. Alternatively, there are shelf-stable baked goods and confectionery, which we discuss in point 6.

  2. Meat and fish: Meat and fish products are very susceptible to germs, so your meat and fish products must be packaged in an air-tight manner. Packaging under protective gas, which is made of plastic, is suitable for this purpose.

  3. Fruits and vegetables: Although we still find many packaged foods in the fruit and vegetable section, more and more supermarkets are offering sustainable options, such as reusable fruit and vegetable nets, which you might know from the unpackaged store, completely without packaging or cardboard boxes, for example.

  4. Beverages: Beverages also officially belong to the category of food and can be packaged in a wide variety of food packaging, depending on the content of the beverage. You can read more about "beverage packaging" as well as "beverage labels" separately in our blog posts.

  5. Dairy products and alternatives: Dairy products include a wide range of products from milk to butter to cheese, which influences the choice of suitable packaging material. For example, we are seeing a trend toward more glass bottles for milk and milk alternatives. Further, there is the possibility of packaging products, such as butter, in trays, which have a much better environmental footprint than PET packaging.

  6. Ready-to-eat and frozen products: All of the previously mentioned sectors (except beverages) can be assigned to this product category of food packaging. Most food products can now be found in the ready-to-eat or frozen food section. For food packaging for ready-to-eat products, such as pre-packaged pasta dishes that require heating, you must rely on plastic packaging under protective gas, as the penetration of oxygen can quickly lead to mold growth. For products from the frozen food department, food packaging made of corrugated cardboard has proven to be safe and environmentally friendly.

What are the most common food packaging materials?

In general, food packaging can be divided into 4 categories: Glass, plastic, cardboard and metal. All materials offer advantages and disadvantages and must be adapted to your food product. Not only the product, but also external influences, such as whether the food is consumed cool or warm, plays an important role in your selection.

  1. Glass as food packaging

Glass is versatile and is often considered a sustainable alternative to plastic for food packaging. Due to its high recycling potential, it is also a suitable material as it absorbs possible food residues such as powder or oil and is easy to clean after use. The disadvantage of glass packaging is the inflexibility of the material, as glass is a very rigid material, and the high CO2 emissions associated with the production and transportation of glass.

  1. Plastic packaging for your food

Compared to glass, plastic is more flexible and therefore more versatile as a food packaging material than glass. In addition, the production of plastic is more energy efficient than glass and emits less C02 when transporting your products. Although plastic is also recyclable, the process is more costly than glass because plastic food packaging is first sorted, and then washed and melted down. In addition, plastic is not completely scratch resistant compared to glass. Generally, the following plastics are used for food packaging: 

  • PE (polyethylene/polyethylene): well suited for flat bags for meat or fish. 

  • PP (polypropylene): primarily used for film bags of packaged noodles or similar

  • PET (polyethylene terephthalate): often used for beverage bottles

  1. Packaging food in cardboard packaging

Paper and cardboard packaging are particularly recyclable and established food packaging. Over 97% of waste paper is recycled in Germany and leaves no residue in the environment. The major disadvantage of cardboard packaging is that non-renewable raw materials, in this case wood, are used for production and these can easily deform when exposed to pressure. 

  1. Metal as food packaging

Metal is also a popular food packaging, as the material is temperature resistant and has a low weight. The most commonly used materials are aluminum and tinplate, which you often see in supermarkets as beverage packaging, such as cans. Although metal is resistant, there is a risk of corrosion, which means that the substance changes naturally.

Overview of the top 4 packaging materials for your food

Food and its packaging play a major role for consumers today. This leads to great pressure in the economy and forces food companies to act more sustainable. Today we have given you an insight into the big topic of food packaging. You now have an overview of food packaging materials (glass, plastic, cardboard/paper, metal) and application areas. If you are interested in the topic of sustainability in food packaging, we can recommend our blog post “4 tips for more sustainable food packaging” and if you want to learn more about the legal requirements, you can read them in the third part of this series “Food packaging: Mandatory information and legal requirements”.

By the way, we offer various packaging options for your food - just take a look at our online store. If you are still not sure which food packaging suits your product best, feel free to contact our sales team. Our colleagues always have an open ear and look forward to new challenges in the packaging jungle.

Your Palamo Team <3

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