Food Manufacturers Rethink Flexible Packaging

Processors are rethinking and improving existing products and make new ones possible thanks to advances in pouch packaging.

By Kate Bertrand Connolly, Packaging Editor

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On-the-go convenience, in-home functionality and sustainability continue to stoke processors’ adoption of flexible packaging, creating a proliferation of pouches in supermarket freezer cases, on grocery shelves and even in the wine aisle.

Innovative structural design is often the prime mover in delivering these benefits. Such was the case with a recent package development project at Hillshire Brands Co., Chicago. The result of Hillshire’s four-year effort was a new style of microwavable packaging for frozen sandwiches.

Called the Heat Fresh Pouch, the package launched this spring in Sam’s Club stores for 12-packs of Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches. The package won a gold award for technical innovation in the 2014 Flexible Packaging Achievement Awards competition sponsored by the Flexible Packaging Association.

Hillshire’s pouch is a thermoform-fill-seal package that uses a nonwoven film laminate, made from polypropylene and cellulose, on the bottom of the package. The package’s formable top film is a proprietary multilayer structure. Curwood Inc., Oshkosh, Wis., supplies Hillshire with both films.

The consumer benefits of the package are greater convenience paired with a better tasting, evenly heated sandwich, the company claims.

“There are three main things the package does,” says Jeff Czarny, director of packaging R&D at Hillshire Brands. "It’s a moisture-equilibrating, self-venting, absorbent package for one-step microwave heating.” The nonwoven film is the absorbent component of the package.

Were a consumer to microwave the same sandwich in a standard plastic pouch, Czarny adds, “your bread on the bottom [would] be extremely soggy and in a puddle of water, and your top [would] probably be really hard.” The new package “basically equilibrates everything, so that you get the same texture on the bottom as you do on the top.”

By venting excess steam and absorbing condensation, the package lets the product heat evenly, with each component maintaining appropriate mouthfeel -- which is a feat, considering the sandwiches include a croissant or biscuit, cheese, egg and sausage.

“We always look at how [product] formulation and package interact. That’s what’s so special about this particular packaging launch,” says Martha Cassens, director of R&D at Hillshire Brands.

“There are different water, fat and salt contents in each of the components, and what we’re trying to do is use the steam -- to drive that to each of the components, so that everything heats up,” Cassens adds. “You don’t want one thing overheating and another component being cold.”

The Heat Fresh Pouch enables consumers “to have the whole sandwich hot. We don’t get crispy bread or soggy bread. We get perfect bread and a hot egg and a hot sausage, and the cheese is melted," she continues. "When you’re dealing with four different components, each of them heats differently and reacts differently in the microwave. And what we’ve got is the ideal solution.”

The pouch also improves convenience versus the previous package by making the microwave-heating process faster and much simpler. “We like to say we reduced heating and prep time by 50 percent,” Czarny says.

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