As anyone who has walked into a supermarket in the past year knows, natural-foods stores are no longer the sole point-of-purchase for organic and all-natural products. The shift to mass-market distribution for these foods and beverages is driving a new generation of packaging designs.
Structurally, packaging for these preservative-free items must include barrier properties to protect against product degradation. At the same time, packaging materials must balance consumers' interest in earth-friendly packaging with their desire for convenience.
To protect organic/natural products from spoiling, "The requirements for packaging often are more stringent, specifically in terms of gas, moisture and sometimes even light barrier," says Eric Bartholomay, product development manager with Toray Plastics (America) Inc. (www.torayfilms.com), North Kingstown, R.I.
|Kettle Brand Potato Chips are packaged in form-fill-seal bags made from a coated-paper substrate. The oil-resistant material provides a barrier to oxygen, moisture and light, protecting the chips against oxidation and rancidity.
Nevertheless, there are packaging materials out there that can meet the special functional requirements of what's inside the package as well as the philosophical needs of those customers making these types of purchases.
Kettle Foods Inc. (www.kettlefoods.com), Salem, Ore., manufactured the first "natural" potato chips in the western U.S. when it began in 1982. An organic line followed in 1989.
Company executives chose a paper-based flexible packaging material for their all-natural snacks. Kettle Brand Potato Chips are packaged in form-fill-seal bags made from a coated-paper substrate. The oil-resistant material provides a barrier to oxygen, moisture and light, protecting the chips against oxidation and rancidity.
"When we are evaluating packaging, we look at what is going to maintain the product's quality, first and foremost. That's our No. 1 priority, to make sure the potato chips inside the bag are fresh and great tasting when consumers open the pack," says Michelle Peterman, vice president of marketing at Kettle Foods.
And, from a merchandising perspective, the paper-based bags resonate with Kettle Chips' all-natural persona. "There is something about the paper that says to people, this is a natural product. They just have a feeling about it," Peterman says.
For both natural and conventional products, "Metallized polypropylenes offer significant barrier properties and are being used more and more to replace aluminum," partly because of the cost of aluminum, Bartholomay adds.
For products that require package clarity, Toray has developed a line of transparent, high-moisture barrier films that purportedly improve product quality and extend shelf life. The films are made from non-coated, biaxially oriented polypropylene; applications include snack foods, crackers, cookies and oil-based confections.
‘Glass is the Cadillac'
For organic/natural products that are not sensitive to light, glass often is the packaging material of choice. Solana Gold Organics (www.solanagold.com), Sebastopol, Calif., produces organic applesauce, apple juice and apple vinegar using glass packaging exclusively.
Reasons include the chemical stability of glass; even for hot-fill applications such as Solana Gold's, glass packaging is inert. In contrast, some plastics and plastic additives interact chemically with foods, altering purity and taste. Heat and/or fat in the product can play a role in the interaction.
"For standard hot-pack or heat-treated foods, I think the public has an inherent knowledge that glass provides purity, that there's no molecular, chemical possibility of contamination," says John Kolling, president of Solana Gold.
"People who are interested in organic and high-purity products read the ingredients. They don't want preservatives, they don't want stabilizers," Kolling adds. "So if they are willing to look at minor ingredients as health compromises, they are also going to look upon the packaging as a health compromise" if it's not something they perceive as pure.
For these consumers, he says, the packaging material "is an unwritten attribute of the product on the ingredient panel."
And from a different marketing angle, glass conveys product quality. Kolling says the attributes of glass include "high perceived purity and actual purity, long shelf life, good visibility, good product presentation. It has a perception of value. A lot of people are willing to spend another nickel or 10 cents for a glass package. Glass is the Cadillac."
Metal means more than cans
For organic/natural beverages and wet foods, high-barrier rigid packaging, typically of metal or glass, is the norm.
In late 2005, Del Monte Foods (www.delmonte.com), San Francisco, began the national launch of its first organic products, Del Monte Organic diced and crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce and paste.
Since then, the company has launched three additional organic products - whole-kernel corn, sweet peas and cut green beans - in regional markets. Like Del Monte's conventional canned vegetables, the organics are packed in enamel-coated steel cans decorated with paper labels. Can sizes range from 8 to 29 oz.
"Besides being one of the best ways to seal in a food's nutrition and taste, the can is one of the most trusted preservation systems available," says Rich Rothamel, vice president-product innovation, packaging and quality with Del Monte Foods. The company's can suppliers are Silgan Containers Corp. (www.silgancontainers.com), Woodland Hills, Calif., and Impress Group (www.impressgroup.com), Carnegie, Pa.
Rothamel adds that organic food processing and environmental sustainability go hand in hand. "The can is one of the most earth-friendly packaging choices available. Steel cans contain about 25 percent recycled content and are 100 percent recyclable, which makes the can an ideal package for our organic line."
Another reason Del Monte chose cans was to make its organic products accessible to mainstream supermarket consumers. In market research, consumers told the company their No. 1 barrier to buying organic products was cost. "By using the can, we've chosen a structure that keeps costs down and makes organic accessible to consumers at all income levels," says Brian Huff, director of marketing in Del Monte's tomato business. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture organic seal appears prominently on the front of the labels.
Food imagery on the labels distinguishes the organic products from the company's conventional vegetables. The organics' graphics feature photography of the vegetables in their natural form rather than the processed state. "The packaging graphics differentiate the organic products in a way that enhances the perception of the benefits organic comes with - that it is healthy and free of things you don't want," says Huff.
Not all metal packaging is the traditional can. SheerBliss Ice Cream LLC (www.sheerblissicecream.com), Hallandale Beach, Fla., chose metal packaging for its SheerBliss All Natural Gourmet Ice Cream. Positioned as an ultra-superpremium ice cream, SheerBliss' unusual flavors include California Pomegranate and Mediterranean Coffee.
The company chose a 16-oz., tin-plated steel canister with a friction-fit lid. Allstate Can Corp. (www.allstatecan.com), Parsippany, N.J., supplies the packaging.
"What the metal packaging does for our ice cream is protect the integrity of the product. When air and smells from a consumer's freezer get into paper packaging, it destroys the product," says Gary Barron, president of SheerBliss.
After a week in the freezer, ice cream packaged in paperboard "is gummy, it's dried out, and it has a freezer burn look," he explains. "We took that very seriously, because our desire is to make sure all our ingredients remain fresh and appealing to the consumer."
In addition to protecting the product from oxygen and from light-induced oxidation, the metal canister reinforces the brand's value proposition.
"Our company believes we produce the best all-natural ice cream, and we wanted to make sure that when our consumers come back for the second taste of SheerBliss - assuming they haven't eaten the whole pint in one sitting - the ice cream is as fresh and as desirable as it was the first time," Barron says.
Convenience backs up plastic
For some organic/natural products, particularly beverages, plastic packaging is becoming an attractive option. A key driver is the entry of these products into mainstream marketing channels, where consumer choices often relate to needs such as on-the-go consumption or ease of preparation.
Consumers' demand for convenience and their parallel interest in earth-friendly packaging represent "a difficult tension," says Dan Mishkind, principal of Pure Design Co. LLC (www.puredesignco.com), Leverett, Mass. His company designs packaging for organic and natural products.
"There's huge growth in the ready-to-serve, single-serve and prepared foods categories, a demand led by consumer needs and driven by our busy lifestyles," Mishkind says.
Seth Goldman, president and "TeaEO" of Honest Tea (www.honesttea.com), Bethesda, Md., adds, "The customer at a Target or a gas station is not going to be as worried about plastic as a grocery shopper going to a Whole Foods store."
Honest Tea, which makes all-natural, ready-to-drink teas and fruit quenchers, recently added polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles to its packaging mix. Previously, all Honest Tea products had been filled into glass.
Honest Tea added plastic packaging partly in response to requests from health clubs, school districts and vending-machine operators. Amcor PET Packaging (www.amcor.com), Ann Arbor, Mich., supplies the company with plastic bottles, and Owens-Illinois Inc. (www.o-i.com), Toledo, Ohio, supplies it with glass bottles.
The company recently introduced two new products, Tangerine Green Tea and Honest Ade Pomegranate Blue, in PET bottles only. The clarity of the plastic, like the clarity of Honest Tea's glass bottles, was an important consideration for the company.
"We didn't put up any kind of screen between the customer and the product inside, so consumers could see what they would be drinking, even if there was sediment," Goldman explains.
"What that communicates to the consumer is we're not trying to hide anything. You can trust our products," he adds. "To call it Honest Tea then have a product where you can't see what you're buying would make people wonder."
The sustainability factor
Organic/natural processors that eschew petrochemical-based plastics are turning to corn-based plastic packaging. NatureWorks LLC, a wholly owned business of Cargill Inc. (www.natureworksllc.com), Minnetonka, Minn., markets a compostable, corn-based plastic.
NatureWorks processes natural plant sugars into a proprietary polylactide polymer, which is marketed under the NatureWorks PLA brand name. In the realm of packaging applications, the material can be used to create rigid thermoformed structures, films, labels and bottles.
"We're seeing a lot of activity in corn-based plastic," says Pure Design's Mishkind. "Unfortunately, right now there isn't accessibility for consumers to the industrial composting facilities needed to biodegrade these types of plastics. But it's a step in the right direction, as it begins to eliminate reliance on petroleum-based plastics."
Biota natural spring water and Newman's Own Organic salads are packaged in NatureWorks PLA containers.
In addition, Jivita (www.jivitawater.com), Wailuku, Hawaii, chose this packaging material for its Jivita Essence Infused Water. The product's 16-oz. bottles and labels are made from the material, and the company plans to ultimately use closures made from NatureWorks PLA.
Jivita water is an all-natural, premium beverage made with plant hydrosols (extracts from flowers, resins and bark). In selecting packaging for the recently launched product, the key question Jivita's executives asked was, "Is it sustainable or not?" recalls Tia Christensen, vice president of Jivita.
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (www.sustainablepackaging.org), Charlottesville, Va., defines sustainable packaging as "beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle."
"It wasn't about how much could we make. It was about what was going to be less impactful on the environment," Christensen adds. "We chose PLA to maintain our goal of sustainability."