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.