The Many Benefits of Paperboard Packaging

Paperboard packaging provides perks ranging from better microwave cooking to earth-friendliness.

By Kate Bertrand

General Mills used recycled, clay-coated news board for its "Shrek 2" cereal box. The character images can be ironed onto clothing.

Advanced paperboard packaging materials and structures are offering food processors an increasingly broad array of benefits, including superior microwave cooking results, on-the-go convenience and retail differentiation.

In addition, improvements in recycled paperboard are making packaging constructed partially or entirely from recycled board more popular for frozen items and shelf-stable products such as crackers, chocolates and cereals.

Food processors are among the biggest users of paperboard cartons. Data from the "Trends" report of the Paperboard Packaging Council (PPC) (, Alexandria, Va., show 60 percent of paperboard packaging is produced for food packaging. According to the report, the top paperboard end-use markets for food are beverages, dry foods and frozen foods. The fastest growing markets are retail carry-out, beverages and frozen foods.

Susceptor laminates heat up

Improvements in microwaveable and dual-ovenable packaging — including susceptor technologies — are a key driver for the growing use of paperboard to package frozen foods. Susceptor materials include paperboard with embedded aluminum patterns as well as paperboard laminated to metallized polyester film. The susceptor absorbs microwave energy from the oven, and that energy is transferred to the food as heat.

Susceptor packaging can provide microwave cooking benefits such as crisping, browning and elimination of hot and cold spots. It also delivers cooked-product textures similar to conventional cooking. For example, bread and bakery items microwaved in susceptor materials avoid problems common to microwaving in non-susceptor packaging, such as coming out chewy/tough or soggy/mushy.

Susceptors also make it possible to microwave food products that include an uncooked protein component, such as fish. Raw Sea Foods Inc. (, New Bedford, Mass., this year introduced its line of Cape Cod Cuisine entrees, meals and appetizers in susceptor trays. The frozen products, which include casseroles, are dual ovenable.

Each of the meals and entrees provides two servings, and the emphasis is on quality. Because Cape Cod Cuisine has a premium positioning — retail pricing is $6.99 to $9.99 — a cook-in package that delivers excellent results in both conventional and microwave ovens was essential. Thanks to the susceptor pattern in the tray, the products "cook thoroughly, throughout the entire container," says Kane Kendall, marketing director for Raw Sea Foods. As an added benefit, the casserole dishes brown on top.

Kendall says Raw Sea Foods considered using crystallized polyester (CPET) trays, but the trays melted in the conventional oven and became pliable in the microwave. And the CPET trays "did not heat nearly as evenly as the susceptor packages," he says. The edges of the dish would be hot and the center cold.
Raw Sea Foods uses MicroRite Even Heating trays from Graphic Packaging International (GPI) Inc. (, Marietta, Ga., to package Cape Cod Cuisine products. On the trays, an aluminum foil pattern is laminated to a paperboard substrate.

"What I really liked about GPI's tray was that the product seemed to bake in the microwave rather than just heating," Kendall says. In addition, the susceptor tray holds its structure and is more durable than the CPET tray, he says. "It's been a great fit with what we are manufacturing."

Pizza rises, crisps in the microwave

Susceptor packaging is opening doors for packagers of bread and dough-based products, as well. "Susceptor film laminated onto paperboard enhances the crispiness of the food product when it is reheated in a microwave," says a spokesman for MeadWestvaco Packaging Resources Group (, Stamford, Conn.

"This is very popular in the hand-held food market," he adds. "With the trend of consumers eating on the run, food companies have developed hand-held pizzas, burritos, pies and other meal-size snack food that can be popped into the microwave and heated up in three minutes to produce a hot and tasty meal on the fly. The susceptor film laminated onto the paperboard substrate is the key factor for the development of this market segment within the food industry."

Kraft Foods Inc. (, Northfield, Ill., last year introduced its DiGiorno Microwave Rising Crust Pizza. And in May, the company added DiGiorno Microwave Thin Crispy Crust pizza to the product line. Available in standard pizza flavors, these frozen products provide two servings per package.

For both, the packaging includes a modified atmosphere pouch, which the consumer removes before cooking. The pouch is tucked into a tray, which, when turned upside down, becomes a cooking platform for the product. The cooking surface is a paperboard/susceptor laminate.

The Labatt Blue Tailgate'r package gives beer drinkers a way to chill and carry 28 cans of beer without a cooler.

The consumer tops the DiGiorno Microwave Rising Crust Pizza with a crisping ring that covers the product's exposed crust. The susceptor materials of the tray and the ring direct the microwave energy throughout the pizza so the crust rises, and the cheese and other toppings cook evenly. "The ring allows the rising dough to be crisp on the outside and protects it from getting dried out, so it remains soft and tender on the inside," says Sean Marks, category business director at Kraft Pizza.

The packaging for DiGiorno Microwave Thin Crispy Crust pizza does not include a crisping ring. For this product, the tray is die cut with circular holes as well as a pattern of slits to ensure proper cooking. Both the tray and the product are square. In contrast, the Rising Crust pie, tray and susceptor ring are circular.

Paperboard takes shape

Innovative package structures and paperboard molding technologies also are offering food processors new packaging options. Rock-Tenn (, Norcross, Ga., has developed a technique for press-forming paperboard trays extruded with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or another thermoplastic polymer.

Trade-named Formations, the press-formed trays are dual ovenable and can be created in the form of geometric shapes, brand figures/logos or holiday-identified shapes such as a bunny, star or heart. The trays can be printed with full-color graphics for branding punch, and the shapes differentiate brands at retail.

For some paperboard packages, traditional techniques such as die cutting, gluing and folding are being deployed in new ways to create shapes that are both striking and functional. The Labatt Blue Tailgate'r package, for example, provides beer drinkers with a way to chill and transport 28 cans of beer without using a cooler.

Labatt Brewing Co. (, London, Ontario, worked with Atlanta-based MeadWestvaco Packaging Systems ( to design the six-piece package, which is made of 18- and 27-point MeadWestvaco Coated Natural Kraft board. The Tailgate'r can be packed with ice; a bag liner catches the runoff.

A reinforced plastic handle makes the package easy to carry, and a tear-away section provides access to the product and a place to add ice. In addition, the package's divider inserts are perforated for transformation into coasters at the time of use. The six-sided, cylindrical Tailgate'r won the President's Award in the PPC's 2005 National Paperboard Packaging Competition.

Bandwagon for recycled board

On the materials side, the current crop of recycled paperboard is drawing food processors' interest because recycled products offer good machineability, printability and product protection at a lower price than virgin board.

"There is a trend toward recycled paperboard packaging, and it's primarily cost driven," says Tony Petrelli, vice president of marketing and business development with Caraustar Industries Inc. ( at the company's Digital Imaging Center in Cleveland. "The manufacturers of recycled paperboard have done a very effective job in recent years of developing effective, functional board grades and alternatives to virgin substrates for many applications — with a specific focus on the refrigerator and freezer environments."

He cautions that recycled board may not be acceptable for certain direct food contact applications, particularly in the frozen food category. However, if the package includes an internal structure such as a pouch, bag or enclosed inner container, recycled paperboard cartons can be used for frozen foods.

Cole's Quality Foods' used a recycled top sheet to reduce packaging costs for its Texas Toast club store pack carton.

A variation is to use a recycled top sheet laminated to the carton's exterior. For example, the Cole's Texas Toast club store pack carton is made of single-face, E-flute corrugated board laminated to a 12-point recycled top sheet. The item is a product of Cole's Quality Foods Inc. (, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Cole's use of a recycled top sheet drove down packaging costs without sacrificing print quality. The top sheet is printed in five colors using sheet-fed offset and treated with an aqueous coating. Caraustar supplies the packaging, which won an Excellence Award in the PPC's 2005 National Paperboard Packaging Competition.

More shelf-stable products are moving into recycled paperboard packaging. For its promotional Shrek 2 cereal box, General Mills Inc. (, Minneapolis, used 24-point, 100 percent recycled clay-coated news board.

Intriguingly, the carton is printed with images of Shrek 2 characters that can be heat-transferred to a piece of clothing. This eliminated the need to attach a separate iron-on decal to the carton or to pack it with the product. The package, supplied by Zumbiel Packaging (, Cincinnati, won a Gold Award in the PPC's 2005 National Paperboard Packaging Competition.

Blue Diamond Growers (, Sacramento, Calif., earlier this year switched from virgin to recycled paperboard cartons for its Blue Diamond Natural Nut-Thins Nut & Rice Crackers. The product, which is sold in sold in natural foods stores and aisles, has a devoted, environmentally conscious customer base.

"Many of our loyal customers asked for recycled packaging," says Jennifer Pfanner, marketing manager. By switching to recycled packaging, Nut-Thins has become "a more environmentally friendly product," she adds.

Pfanner points out that natural foods consumers, more so than other customers, read the information on packages before buying. Therefore, the back panel of the Nut-Thins cartons sports the logo of the 100% Recycled Paperboard Alliance to communicate Blue Diamond's use of earth-friendly materials.

The Nut-Thins cartons are made of recycled, 18-point white clay-coated news back board, sheet-fed offset printed; a metallized film bag inside the carton holds the crackers. General Converting (, Bolingbrook, Ill., supplies the cartons.

Candinas Chocolatier (, Verona, Wis., has used recycled packaging for its premium, handmade chocolates since going into business 10 years ago. When Candinas redesigned its packaging this year, it once again chose recycled paperboard.

Having sampled other chocolatiers' products in Europe and Asia, and encountering many examples of elegant but non-recycled, non-recyclable packaging, company founder Markus Candinas decided early on that "there must a way to do beautiful packaging while still keeping an eye on the environment."

Candinas adds, "When we start developing new packaging, we always ask for recycled. We want to keep that environmental aspect in mind."

The new Candinas box, and a die-cut insert that immobilizes the chocolates, are made from 32-point recycled board. Glued to the box's base and lid is a top sheet; the sheet is printed in five colors using sheet-fed offset, and an aqueous coating is applied. The finished, hand-filled box slips into a decorative, die-cut sleeve. Planet Propaganda (, a branding and design firm based in Madison, Wis., designed the packaging.

As recycled board continues to improve, and as paperboard forming technologies, structural design and susceptor laminates become even more sophisticated, food processors will have no choice but to rethink the paperboard box, carton, tray and sleeve.


Marketing is all about thinking like the consumer. And for a growing number of food processors, that means adopting an environmentally conscious world view.

Consumer research conducted by the 100% Recycled Paperboard Alliance (100% RPA) (, New York, shows 61 percent of consumers are "more inclined" to purchase products from a company that uses recycled paperboard packaging.

To make sure those customers recognize recycled paperboard packaging when they see it, qualifying packagers can print the 100% RPA's trademarked recycling symbol on their cartons. The symbol is an updated version of the chasing arrows symbol.

In a 100% RPA-sponsored survey, 59 percent of respondents said they'd choose to buy a product with the 100% RPA symbol on it vs. a package without the symbol.


Getting the most bang for your distribution buck requires maximizing the amount of freight packed on trailers leaving your plant. To help meat packers gain efficiency in this area, the Corrugated Packaging Alliance (CPA) (, Indianapolis, has created voluntary packaging standards that make loading, handling, storing and shipping case-ready meat more efficient.

The standards, which CPA calls the Corrugated Modular Systems for Case-Ready Meat, provide two pallet options, with design flexibility for corrugated shipping containers. The pallet options use a footprint of either five or six shippers.

A national retailer that used the Modular Systems standard to ship case-ready beef and pork "increased utilization of their trucks from 79 percent to 98 percent," says Dwight Schmidt, CPA's executive director. A brochure describing the standards is available from CPA.

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