Consumer desire for convenience continues to drive food packaging innovation. From wine in single-serve "juice boxes" to microwavable franks, processors are coming up with impressive new ways to deliver convenience at home or on the run.
For on-the-go products, packaging that makes it easier to transport, open and consume the product is becoming more prevalent. The size of this market is a motivating factor. According to London-based Datamonitor (www.datamonitor.com), the U.S. market for out-of-home food and drink consumption was worth $515 billion in 2005.
For products used at home, such as frozen foods or dried goods, packaging is more often designed to make the product easier to prepare, serve and/or store. Cook-in packaging, in particular, is on the upswing.
Convenience products and packaging are making it easy for consumers to enjoy beverages of all kinds, wherever and whenever thirst strikes. Single-serving packaging is even making inroads in the wine market.
"Single-serve as a category in wine has been growing quickly - close to 20 percent last year," says Charles Bieler, co-founder of the winery Three Thieves (www.threethieves.com), St. Helena, Calif. Three Thieves markets its Bandit wines in single-serving 250-ml Tetra Prisma aseptic packs from Tetra Pak (www.tetrapakusa.com), Vernon Hills, Ill.
Bandit is sold in four-packs, and varietals include Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Sauvignon. Three Thieves plans to launch White Zinfandel in the single-serving package, as well.
Bandit's aseptic packaging eliminates the need for a corkscrew, makes it possible to drink a single portion of wine without opening a bottle, eliminates the risk of cork taint and is much lighter to transport and safer than glass.
Aseptic also was the packaging technology of choice for a breakthrough product in the coffee category. Stomping Grounds Beverage Co. (www.stompinggrounds.com), Portland, Ore., is marketing its cold-press espresso concentrate in 32-oz. Tetra Brik cartons from Tetra Pak.
The product offers a convenient alternative to making lattes with an espresso machine. The consumer simply adds the espresso concentrate to milk and heats the latte on the stovetop or in the microwave.
Because Stomping Grounds is positioned as a high-quality alternative to powdered latte mixes, packaging that assured product quality was essential. Through market research, Stomping Grounds learned that aseptic packaging "connotes freshness. That freshness call-out was big to me," says Sean Ryan, Stomping Grounds' president. "I wanted to distinguish my product from the powdered alternatives. I wanted consumers to view it more as fresh espresso with coffee shop appeal."
"The demand for convenience is affecting packaging in two ways," says Chris Voght, strategic alliance manager for Toray Plastics (America) Inc. (www.torayfilms.com.), North Kingstown, R.I. "One is smaller packaging formats that target the on-the-go consumer. The other is packaging that addresses portion control, either through a smaller package or a resealable package that lets consumers take what they want and reclose the package so the product doesn't become stale."
Recloseable zippers, long familiar on packaging for lunch meat and shredded cheese, are starting to appear more regularly on other products and larger package sizes. In all cases, the convenience of storing left-over product in the package is a driver.
"In our focus groups, consumers have talked about a lot of potential products they would consider buying in a flexible package," says Bob Hogan, director of international sales and marketing for Zip-Pak (www.zippak.com), a division of ITW based in Manteno, Ill. He cites pineapple rings as a classic example because of the one or two rings inevitably left over after opening the can.
Even soup is a candidate for flexible, resealable packaging. "There was a company that introduced a hot-filled soup, and although it was intended to be a single-serve product, they put a zipper on it because one of their target markets was the elderly," Hogan recalls.
Among dry foods, Malt-O-Meal cereal is packaged in a flexible bag with a press-to-seal zipper; Sanitarium cereals are similarly packaged in Australia and New Zealand. Even pouches for retorted products such as tuna can be equipped with zippers. Zip-Pak has developed a high-temperature zipper that is compatible with retorting.
Also within the realm of flexible packaging, single-serving stick packs are becoming a standard for powdered beverages like Crystal Light On The Go from Kraft Foods (www.kraftfoods.com), Northfield, Ill. Sonoco supplies the film for Crystal Light stick packs.
Flexible package structures such as flat bottom bags are finding more applications, as well. This type of package, when opened, acts as a serving container for the product.
Among rigid containers, cupholder-friendly cups and canisters continue to define convenience packaging for the drive-and-nosh crowd. Products include drinks, soups and dry products such as cookies and chips.
Frito-Lay (www.fritolay.com) Plano, Texas, developed the Go Snacks rigid canister specifically for on-the-go snacking. The Go Snacks package fits car cupholders and features a lid that doubles as a serving cup. The company has used the package for its Cheetos, Doritos and Funyuns snacks.
Freezer to microwave
For convenience products designed to be cooked and consumed at home, packaging often targets ease of preparation. This extends to heating and/or serving the product in the package, which also simplifies clean-up.
Earlier this year, Birds Eye Foods (www.birdseyefoods.com), Rochester, N.Y., launched its Steamfresh (birdseyesteamfresh.com) line of frozen vegetables. The products cook in the 12-oz., flexible Steamfresh pouch. Graphics and text on the package communicate the microwave-in-package feature at a glance.
Birds Eye Foods' Steamfresh line of frozen vegetables goes from freezer to the microwave, where the bag blows up like a balloon to perfectly cook the veggies.
The initial Steamfresh launch included nine plain vegetables and vegetable mixtures. Since then, Birds Eye has added four seasoned-vegetable offerings to the line-up.
The key component of the package is the film, which incorporates a patented steaming technology. Excelsior Technologies Ltd. UK (www.exceltechuk.com), Flintshire County, England, supplies the film.
In addition to providing fool-proof cooking via five-minute microwaving, the package offers the ultimate in healthy convenience. "Today's harried consumers don't have a ton of time, but they want to eat more vegetables," says Josh Weinstein, senior brand manager at Birds Eye.
"Here you have an opportunity to take our bag right out of the freezer, throw it in the microwave, hit five, and you don't have to manage the cooking process," he adds. "Consumers have told us time and again, 'Thank you so much. You're enabling me to get more vegetables into my diet and into my family's diet through the convenience of this package.' "
Jim Wrobel, account strategist at Racine, Wis.-based Design North Inc. (www.designnorth.com), which designed the Steamfresh package, adds, "We consumers all have far less time to do all the things we need to do - especially feed ourselves. The convenience benefit of the Birds Eye Steamfresh vegetables was a significant driver of this project." The package concept "really is a new paradigm for the category," he adds.
Steamfresh complements the Birds Eye Steam & Serve Tray, which launched last year. Steam & Serve also uses a microwave steaming technology, but in a rigid package structure. The chef-inspired, vegetables-in-sauce Steam & Serve products were developed to be both cooked and served in the package.
A fresh approach
Dole gives consumers not just the vegetables but also the cooking vessel with its breathable microwave-ready bag.
For fresh produce, Dole Fresh Vegetables Co. (www.dole.com) Salinas, Calif., has introduced a patent-protected, breathable microwave-ready bag for washed, trimmed asparagus. The company markets the product as Dole Restaurant Ready Asparagus to foodservice operators and is planning to launch a retail version of the product.
Already available at retail are microwaveable fresh vegetables from Del Monte Fresh Produce (www.freshdelmonte.com), Coral Gables, Fla. The company uses the Cryovac Simple Steps produce package from Sealed Air Corp. (www.sealedair.com), Elmwood Park, N.J., for the products.
The consumer places the rigid Cryovac tray in the microwave, without peeling or puncturing the film lidding. As the package heats, the film expands to form a bubble, then the film automatically vents and relaxes over the vegetables. After cooling the package for one minute, the consumer peels off the film and can serve the steamed vegetables in the plastic tray.
Del Monte's microwavable vegetable line includes Baby Carrots, Vegetable Medley and Mixed Vegetable. Each comes in a 12-oz. family portion and a 5- or 6-oz. single-serve size. "Trends show that consumers are looking for great-tasting, healthy, convenient foods," says Dionysios Christou, vice president of marketing, Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A.
Convenience may be king, but consumers are not willing to sacrifice food quality on its behalf. In some cases, a switch of packaging materials is all that's needed to safeguard flavor profiles or extend shelf life.
To better protect the quality of its Knorr and Lipton dried-mix products, Unilever Foods North American Savory Division (www.unileverusa.com), Englewood Cliffs, N.J., switched from a foil-based substrate to a material designed for superior moisture and oxygen barrier.
After more than 30 years of using paper-polyethylene-foil-polyethylene pouches for Knorr and Lipton mixes, Unilever replaced the foil with a technologically advanced metallized, biaxially oriented polypropylene film.
And, he adds, "Retailers are constantly looking for products that keep their stores on the cutting edge. To be competitive they have to offer alternatives that are appealing to their customer base and easy to prepare. With our new line of microwaveables they can. The new film and packing system offers a quick way of cooking vegetables while maintaining all the taste of freshly prepared vegetables."
Safe handling, an emerging feature for cook-in packaging, is integrated into Del Monte's microwaveable vegetable packaging. An easy-open tab lets consumers safely remove the lidding from the hot tray. The tray also incorporates side handles to reduce the risk of burns or spills.
Separately, RPC Bebo Nederland (www.rpc.nl), Goor, The Netherlands, has introduced safety-oriented ready-meal trays that incorporate notches for handles. The notches are ergonomically placed to ensure ease of handling when peeling off the film lidding.
Conventional retort processors also are pairing packaging convenience with safety. Canned fish and seafood producer Bernardo Alfageme S.A. (www.alfageme.com), Vigo, Spain, recently opted for an easy-open, safety-oriented feature on cans of its Miau brand mackerel in olive oil.
In place of a metal end, the can is sealed with a peelable panel that consumers can easily remove leaving no sharp edges. The flexible panel is made from aluminum foil, laminated with polypropylene film on the inside and lacquered on the outside. Called PeelSeam, the peelable-panel technology is supplied by Paris-based Crown Food Europe (www.crowncork.com).
In the heat-and-serve arena, specialty paperboard-based packaging is opening the door to microwaveable sandwich items.
Packaging technology had to be married with some changes in the dough composition to bring to market Kraft's microwavable Oscar Mayer Fast Franks.
One of the newest in this category is Kraft Foods' Oscar Mayer Fast Franks. These meat wieners and beef franks come individually wrapped in a microwaveable paperboard tray that fully warms the hot dog while at the same time heating the bun so it's soft and warm.
The paperboard material is designed with laminated quilts, or pockets, that expand when exposed to microwave energy and provide close contact with the product. The hot surface next to the food drives away moisture, enabling the bun to maintain its taste and texture. Graphic Packaging International (www.graphicpkg.com), Marietta, Ga., supplies the packaging material, called QuiltWave.
The packaging technology, "coupled with proprietary Kraft dough technology, helped take Oscar Mayer Fast Franks from concept into a marketplace reality," says Jim Kennedy, Oscar Mayer brand manager. "Consumers and retailers alike recognize the convenience of having a hot dog and a bun all in one package. And they have said they are pleased they now only have to wait 35 seconds to enjoy a tasty, hot and juicy Oscar Mayer hot dog wrapped inside a soft bun."
The product, merchandised in the refrigerated section, is in national distribution. The initial launch was multipacks of three franks, and Kraft plans to add an eight-count club pack.
Consumers who take ketchup on their wiener will be glad to know condiment makers are convenience-minded, too. For ease of pouring and storing ketchup, H.J. Heinz Co. (www.heinz.com), Pittsburgh, has developed the Fridge Door Fit bottle. Both the 46- and the 64-oz. sizes have a compact shape that fits snugly into the refrigerator door and incorporate side grips for easy handling.