Market Drives New Steel Can Features

Market dynamics drive new can features, ranging from ease of opening to microwaveability.

By Kate Bertrand

The metal can, created by an enterprising Frenchman in 1809 to preserve food for Napoleon’s soldiers, is undergoing an evolutionary spurt that promises to add both functional advantages and value to canned foods.

To create a consumer perception of value, U.S. food processors are starting to use shaped cans to differentiate their products and communicate a premium brand image. And on the functional side, easy-open ends and recloseable steel cans deliver the convenience consumers demand.

Self-heating and microwaveable cans currently in development also target convenience. Changing lifestyles are driving consumers’ desire for convenient, time-saving foods and food packaging.

An online survey of 500 American grocery shoppers, conducted by InsightExpress last year, indicates that nine out of 10 consumers buy portable convenience foods. The research firm defined “convenience foods” as ready to eat or easy to prepare. In addition, roughly 30 percent said they were buying more convenience foods than they had the prior year.

“Convenience is the buzzword these days when it comes to packaging,” says Robert Budway, president of the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) (, Washington. Thus the growing popularity of the easy-open can, which doesn’t require a can opener, as well as the recloseable can, which is “convenient because you can open it and put it in the refrigerator without having to transfer the product to another container.”

Capitaine Cook of Plozevet (Brittany), France, uses a different style of easy-open end for its tuna salad products. The company closes its steel cans with peelable foil instead of a metal end. The consumer pulls a tab to remove the foil, then eats the salad directly from the bowl-like can.

Easy-open ends

CMI estimates easy-open cans have penetrated 35 percent of the U.S. market. The organization further estimates that by 2008, 65-75 percent of all metal cans will be fitted with an easy-open end — a ring-pull, pop-top lid that enables the user to partially or completely remove the can end and easily scoop or pour food from the can.

In other parts of the world, easy-open cans already have made deep inroads, thanks partially to steel companies’ research and development. “In the past five to 10 years, steel companies, especially in Europe, have made good progress” developing steel that is strong enough to provide package integrity while delivering a bona fide easy-open end, says Jeff DeLiberty, senior marketing manager at Silgan Containers Corp. (, Woodland Hills, Calif. With the newer materials, “The metal can be more easily fractured and broken away from its existing connection to the can, using forces that are much lower and more in synch with younger and elderly consumers,” he adds.

Campbell Soup Co. (, Camden, N.J., began changing its cans three years ago when it switched from a sanitary end to an easy-open end for its ready-to-serve soups. The consumer removes the entire top end from the three-piece can using a pull ring.

The company later switched to similar easy-open ends on two-piece cans for Campbell’s condensed soups, Swanson canned poultry and some bean products. Campbell uses a pop-and-pour can for Swanson broth. Overall, the company currently ships about 3 billion filled, easy-open cans per year.

“The dominant reason we made the change was to offer consumer convenience,” says Brad Menees, Campbell’s vice president of technology development at the corporate R&D center. He adds that consumer response has been “great,” with more than 4 percent growth in sales of the ready-to-serve soups directly attributable to switching to easy-open ends.

Campbell uses easy-open ends from multiple suppliers, including Quick Top ends from Silgan; that supplier purchased Campbell’s can manufacturing operation in 1998. Menees says line speeds are the same running easy-open cans as they were running sanitary cans, but he declines to reveal the speed.

Del Monte Foods Co. (, San Francisco, also switched to easy-open cans for a range of products. The company has packed fruit in easy-open cans for many years and switched to them for selected vegetable products about four years ago. 

Easy-open cans are a good fit for products used completely on one occasion, such as snacking or meal preparation. Del Monte’s 4-oz., single-serve canned fruit falls in the first category; 15-oz. canned vegetables fall in the second.

Del Monte needed to modify some of its filling lines, particularly the closing equipment, for compatibility with easy-open ends. Having made those changes, the company’s plants have found that “if done properly, the easy-open end doesn’t impact line speed,” says Scott Butler, vice president-engineering and technical services.

In some cases, Del Monte fills the can, then applies the easy-open end. In other instances, it uses cans with the easy-open end already attached. In this case, it inverts the cans, fills them and seams on a sanitary end. The company uses more than one supplier for its pop-top ends.

The peelable can “end” consists of a thin, flexible panel heat-sealed to a metal ring; the ring is flanged to run on conventional double-seaming equipment. The peelable material is aluminum foil, laminated with polypropylene film on the inside and lacquered on the outside. Crown Holdings supplies Capitaine Cook with the peelable can ends under the Peel Seam trade name.

Recloseable cans

A separate innovation, also driven by the demand for convenience, is the recloseable steel can. Hirzel Canning Co. (, Toledo, Ohio, was the first U.S. company to switch to it. Hirzel fills its Dei Fratelli Presto! brand Italian dip and pizza sauce in the container.

The can’s closure features a vacuum-release design. The user pulls back the pressure-release dot on the lid, releasing vacuum from the can, and lifts off the closure. The lid snaps back on the can for product storage. This Dot Top lid is supplied by Silgan, which licenses the closure technology from Metalgrafica Rojek of Brazil.

The cost of the recloseable 12-oz. can is 15 percent higher than a conventional can, or roughly two to three cents more per can. However, the package is less expensive than a glass jar with a lug cap. In addition, Hirzel’s recloseable can-filling line runs 30 to 40 percent faster than a jar-filling line.

Because the new can positions Dei Fratelli Presto! as a premium brand, the company is able to suggest a retail price that is about 15 percent higher than if the product were filled into a standard 15-oz. steel can.

Hirzel Canning intends to launch additional products in the recloseable can. “We think there’s some opportunity with dipping sauces and other spreads; international products, everything from Sicilian sauces to Vietnamese and Far Eastern; and even something like value-added pasta sauces,” says President Steve Hirzel.

Self-heating and microwaveable 

Beverage fillers are leading the way with a convenient “can” of a different sort, a self-heating can that combines plastic and metal. WP Beverage Partners LLC, Newport Beach, Calif., recently introduced Wolfgang Puck gourmet coffee in a retortable, self-heating can developed by OnTech Delaware Inc. and manufactured by Sonoco Products Co. 

Lakeside Foods Inc., Manitowoc, Wis., plans to launch Hillside brand flavored-coffee products coffee in the same container later this year. Although the first commercial applications are beverages, the self-heating container also could be used for soup. The container holds 10 fluid oz. of product.

Shapely cans 

The body of the container consists of a blow-molded, polypropylene cup and inner cone. The top is a steel stay-on tab (SOT) end, and the bottom is a pop-top, full-panel steel end that provides tamper evidency and protects the self-heating mechanism until time of consumption. 

To start the heating reaction, the consumer pushes the activation button on the bottom of the container. This lets calcium oxide and water in the package’s inner chambers mix, generating heat. The coffee, in an outer chamber, heats to about 145 degrees Fahrenheit in six to eight minutes. 

Another self-heating can technology, not yet in commercial use, takes a somewhat different approach. The self-heating mechanism also uses chemicals to create an exothermic reaction; however, the chemicals are contained in a pocket between the steel can and a polypropylene or high-density polyethylene (HDPE) outer sleeve that encases everything except the top of the can. 

After pushing the activation button on the bottom of the can, the chemicals mix to create circulating steam that continues to heat the food for 30 to 40 minutes. The food heats to 150 degrees Fahrenheit in three to four minutes, with no steam escaping from the container.

This technology is designed for use with standard steel cans fitted with easy-open, pop-top ends. The application of the plastic sleeve and self-heating chemicals occurs after the can has been filled on a conventional canning line. 

Compatible products include highly garnished foods such as soups, stews, chilis, vegetable-based entrees and macaroni and cheese. Self Heating Technology Corp. developed this technology and intends to license it to canned-food companies.

Also in development are various microwaveable cans. Those currently on retail shelves are plastic. Campbell’s Soup at Hand container, for example, is made of HDPE. However, a microwaveable, bowl-shaped steel can has entered the market-test phase. Developed by Ball Corp., Broomfield, Colo., this container is made of steel coated with a barrier plastic, which enables microwave energy to penetrate the steel container. The bottom of the container also is plastic. 

This package has a steel easy-open end, which the user removes before microwaving. A snap-on lid keeps the product from bubbling over during cooking. The design and materials were chosen to deliver uniform heating; to encourage eating directly from the container; and to enable food processors to use conventional filling, closing and thermal equipment without compromising line speed.

In addition to costing more than standard steel cans, microwaveable cans face a unique challenge among consumers: “People think metal—don’t put it in the microwave. You have to overcome that,” says Ron Thomas, professor and chairman of Clemson University’s Packaging Science Dept.

After packagers overcome consumer misperceptions about microwaveable cans, the package will be positioned to add value for time-stressed consumers. By eliminating the need to transfer the can’s contents to a microwave-safe container, the microwaveable can represents “one less step for consumers, and that’s what they’re looking for — to add convenience and reduce meal prep time,” says Maurie Fettig, executive vice president of sales and marketing at tomato canner Red Gold Inc. (, Orestes, Ind.

The emerging popularity of shaped cans in the U.S. illustrates food companies’ growing interest in differentiating their canned products via the package. As with many can innovations, shaped cans first found a foothold in Europe. 

Stockmeyer AG of Germany uses a kettle-shaped can for a line of heat-and-serve soups sold in the United Kingdom. Crown Holdings (, Philadelphia, supplies the shaped, easy-open can to Stockmeyer and also to Trader Joe’s for a line of private-label soups marketed in the U.S.

The shaped can doubles as packaging and point-of-sale advertising. “The kettle shape reinforces all sorts of subtle images or impressions about home cooking and the taste of home-cooked soups,” says Dan Abramowicz, executive vice president of technology and regulatory affairs at Crown Holdings. 

“They’re using the shape to do more than differentiate the product and have it stand out on the shelf. It’s to support the product’s brand image,” he says.

Shaped cans convey premium brand quality, as well. Comfort Foods Inc., North Andover, Mass., shapes its own cans for roasted, ground arabica coffee. Communicating premium quality is the rationale.

Comfort Foods shapes 6- to 32-oz. steel cans into canister and barrel shapes; both shapes are trademarked. The three-piece cans are shaped, filled and closed inline.

“Consumers have had the perception that coffee in a can is a commodity product, and if you really want good coffee you have to get it in the bag or whole bean,” says Stephen Liff, Comfort Foods’ vice president of marketing. “But in reality, the package has nothing to do with the product’s quality.” The shaped cans create “a special presence on the shelf to tell the consumer this is not your ordinary coffee in a can.” 

Similarly, convenience features such as easy-opening, self-heating and microwaveability are bringing cachet to canned products. The humble can is poised to become a premium package, something Napoleon never would have predicted.

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