Diverse trends, ranging from on-the-go consumption to healthy eating to rising distribution costs, are making waves in aseptic packaging. With more types of products being filled into aseptic packs, and with a greater variety of aseptic package types available, processors that might not have considered aseptic in the past are diving in.
Much of the recent action has been in low-acid products, particularly milk-based offerings, and at the other end of the spectrum, in wine.
The emphasis on healthier dietary choices for children and teenagers is certainly reshaping the market for aseptic milk-based products. In particular, the American Beverage Assn. (ABA) and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation last year published new School Beverage Guidelines designed to provide America's 35 million students with a range of nutritious, lower-calorie, smaller-portion beverage choices. The guidelines ask elementary and middle schools to provide only bottled water, low-fat/non-fat milk (regular and flavored) and 100 percent juice. In addition to those products, high schools may sell no- or low-calorie beverages, light juice and sports drinks.
Bravo Foods' Slammers, HDPE bottles filled with flavored fat-free milks, fit the same vending machine slots formerly occupied by 12-oz. soft drink cans.
The guidelines apply to all beverages sold at school during the regular and extended school day. They build on the beverage industry's health-oriented school vending policy and provide a golden opportunity for milk-based beverages.
The guidelines don't prescribe aseptic packaging, but this type of packaging is appealing to schools for reasons that include food safety and ease of storage. Because aseptically filled milk-based products are shelf stable for up to a year, they can be stored on the cafeteria's kitchen shelves until it's time to chill them for serving.
Aseptic packaging is desirable for school vending machines, as well. "Most schools maintain vending machines that store drinks that include milk products," says Balaji Capaloor, industry manager in the chemicals, materials and food group of market research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan (www.frost.com), Palo Alto, Calif. "Unfortunately, this is very dangerous as the [traditionally packaged] milk may deteriorate during a power failure and ultimately affect the children. Therefore, it is much safer to utilize aseptically packaged drinks." He adds that the storage and safety aspects of aseptic packages "are fueling the growth of the market."
Vendible aseptic bottles
This past September, Bravo! Foods International Corp. (www.bravobrands.com), North Palm Beach, Fla., debuted its Slammers milk-based drinks in an aseptic packaging format to help schools meet the new ABA guidelines. All Bravo! products are aseptically filled into single-serve plastic bottles.
The Slammers school package is an 8-oz., snowman-shaped, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottle filled with fat-free milk in assorted flavors: 3 Musketeers, Cocoa Puffs and Trix Slammers, and Pro Slammers in Vanilla Rush, Hard Chocolate and Scorchin' Strawberry.
The 8-oz. Slammers are distributed by Coca-Cola Enterprises and can fill vending machine slots traditionally occupied by 12-oz. soft drink cans. Because the products require no refrigeration, they can be distributed on ambient-temperature Coca-Cola trucks.
"We've completed the reformulation of all our products that go into schools to be ABA-compliant," says Ben Patipa, Bravo's chief operating officer. "The 8-oz. [Slammers] package is the first plastic, aseptic, vendible bottle in the marketplace. It can repatriate all those dormant vending machines" in schools.
He adds that Bravo! will launch a milk-based, aseptically filled product for distribution in high schools in time for the 2007-2008 school year. That package will be a 12-oz. HDPE bottle.
Bravo! also distributes its single-serve aseptic products to the various channels of trade serving on-the-go consumers, such as delicatessens, convenience stores and supermarket chains.
As a U.S. pioneer in aseptic filling of low-acid products, Bravo! has contracted with H.P. Hood LLC (www.hphood.com), Chelsea, Mass., a dairy operator that fills and markets its own brands and also acts as a co-packer. The first of the Slammers bottles filled by Hood were to appear on store shelves in February. The dairy's annual production on behalf of Bravo! is expected to be 70 million bottles.
In 2005, H.P. Hood became the first U.S. plant to receive a Letter of Non-Objection (LONO) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to bottle low-acid beverages aseptically on a rotary filler. The dairy uses a high-speed filler from Shibuya International (www.shibuya-int.com), Modesto, Calif.
A low-acid 'tsunami'
More processors and co-packers are angling to get a LONO from the FDA so they too can use rotary aseptic equipment for low-acid filling. Line speeds, and therefore packaging economies, are much greater with rotary fillers than with in-line machines.
A note to marketing
Marketing splash was instrumental in the choice of a recloseable aseptic carton for Nestea products in Germany. For the products, The Coca-Cola Co. (www.thecoca-colacompany.com), Atlanta, chose the combifitMagnum carton from SIG Combibloc Inc. (www.sig.biz), with U.S. offices in Chester, Pa.
The carton's billboard potential, with four large display surfaces, was one of the main reasons the company switched from PET bottles to the carton pack. The 1.5-liter carton is used for the lemon, peach and forest berries flavors of Nestea and for a seasonal product, Nestea Snowy Orange. The carton also incorporates a screw cap.
Aseptic Solutions USA LLC (www.asepticusa.com), Corona, Calif., is working toward receiving a LONO for its operation, which features a rotary filler supplied by Procomac (www.procomacit.com), Sala Baganza, Italy.
Industry observers say Aseptic Solutions wishes to fill not only HDPE but also polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles with low-acid products, which is making it more complex to get the LONO. The chemical used to sterilize the bottles is the key complication. Hydrogen peroxide — the commonly used, FDA-approved sterilant for low-acid aseptic filling into HDPE bottles — is not compatible with PET. And peracetic acid, which can be used as a sterilant for PET, has not yet received FDA approval.
But that time is coming. "Procomac is moving forward to assemble data on filling low-acid products aseptically on its rotary fillers using a peracetic acid-based sterilant," says Gordon Bockner, president of Business Development Associates Inc., a Bethesda, Md., consulting firm. Ultimately Procomac will present the operational data to the FDA for validation.
In the past year, two peracetic acid-based solutions have received approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This is required before FDA validation of an aseptic process can be granted.
Most recently, in December 2006, Ecolab Inc. (www.ecolab.com), St. Paul, Minn., announced it had received EPA registration for a patented peracetic acid-based sterilant. The product was developed for use in aseptic filling of low-acid beverages into PET bottles.
According to Ecolab, the sterilant will help dairy-beverage bottlers lower their aseptic packaging costs, because it can be used at lower operating temperatures than hydrogen peroxide sterilants. This will drive down energy costs and enable the use of lighter weight containers, which will in turn reduce materials and freight costs.
"There is no question about the growing interest in low-acid aseptic bottling. I believe the container of preference is going to be a PET container as opposed to an HDPE container with a full-body shrink label, which is a more expensive package because of the label," Bockner says. "This is a market that's poised to happen. All the ingredients are coming together. If you were to name the next half-dozen tsunami-type changes in the food packaging industry, one of them would have to be low-acid aseptic."
In addition to dairy products, low-acid beverages such as green tea, functional waters and coffee or tea with milk are positioned to grow. Aseptic processing is appealing for these products because it uses a short exposure to high temperature, which is gentler than hot filling on delicate flavors, nutrients and ingredients.
In addition, for both low- and high-acid products, aseptic packaging eliminates the need for preservatives; shelf life is assured without them. This all-natural characteristic is attractive to the growing number of consumers interested in healthy dietary choices and to the processors who want their business.