From self-destructing cartons to self-expanding bowls, food packaging is moving in some unusual directions.
New trends in food packaging
From self-heating packaging to hand-painted grocery bags, the world of food packaging is seeing some exciting new trends. Inspire spoke to three players in the field.
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Consumer expectations are getting higher and higher,” says Justin Shimek, chief technology officer at Mattson, based near San Francisco. “Our company works across the food and beverage industries. Sometimes we get involved very early on. We can generate the idea for a new product, take it through formulation and development, source manufacturers and design the packaging.”
Transparency is a big trend at the moment, Shimek explains. “Consumers want to see the product, and the packaging must have short but clear ingredients statements, plus the food itself needs to be authentic and have an understandable origin,” he says.
The movements for raw food and local food have had a great impact, Shimek says. “Consumers are looking for food products that come from people rather than brands,” he says. “They want products they can trust, and that’s where young entrepreneurs can shine – startups with a interesting back story.”
The web is beginning to have an impact on packaging design as well, he says. “We have a number of clients who have decided to launch online first, so the first contact is virtual,” he says.
"You’re interacting with a product in a virtual context, so packaging has to work virtually as well as in the real world."
The selfie movement has caused a real buzz in the industry of late – packaging that is self-heating, self-cleaning or self-opening. Some industry insiders have declared it the future of packaging. Shimek is more cautious.
“There is a risk that the packaging becomes too complicated, too expensive and overfuzzy,” he says. “Consumers want frictionless packaging, not only in terms of functionality. The packaging needs to work environmentally and socially as well.”
Many would say that those boxes have been ticked by the design agency Tomorrow Machine, a new Stockholm-based design agency. The agency’s selfie packaging has generated a lot of excitement even though it is not yet commercially available. So far they’re still research projects, self-initiated or developed in collaboration with the Swedish research company Innventia.
Water melts sugar but oil does not, so why not package oil in sugar?
Tomorrow Machine consists of Anna Glansén and Hanna Billqvist. Sustainability is at the core of their philosophy, but their unusual approach to packaging design derives from something else.
“There’s some very interesting packaging design out there, but most of it is created by graphic designers,” Glansén says. “Hanna and I are product designers, and we wanted to create brand new types of packaging, sustainable and smart.”
Their first project to get noticed was called This Too Shall Pass. “Take a milk carton, for instance,” Glansén says. “The milk is consumed quickly, but the carton takes years to decompose. So we began developing packaging with the same lifespan as the foods they contain.”
The concept was based on the fact that different liquids and materials react differently to each other. From that sprang the idea of creating packaging where the packaging itself worked in symbiosis with the content. For example, water melts sugar but oil does not, so sugar is an ideal material for packaging oil in.
“So we created packaging made out of sugar,” Glansén says. “To prevent the sugar packaging from reacting with the moisture in the air, we covered it with a thin layer of wax on the outside. The moment the package is opened it begins to break itself down. The wax no longer protects the sugar, and the unprotected inside comes in contact with moisture. We also created packaging for smoothies made out of gel of the agar-agar seaweed and water, and we used biodegradable beeswax for rice packaging.”
“The ‘self-expanding bowl’, packaging that turns into a bowl when it is filled with hot water. We also created self-opening packaging that opens itself when it’s heated in the oven, showing you when the meal is ready.”
The project caught the attention of the Swedish research company Innventia. “They invited us to explore new ways of utilising some of their new materials, including a mechano-active material that transforms when it’s exposed to heat,” Glansén says. “We created the ‘self-expanding bowl’, packaging that turns into a bowl when it is filled with hot water. We also created self-opening packaging that opens itself when it’s heated in the oven, showing you when the meal is ready.”
Creativity is in demand, as packaging is there to sell as well as to protect.
It’s easy to get excited about new trends, but Lars Wallentin thinks that some of the food giants have forgotten some important truths. Wallentin is an expert in the field. Since his retirement from Nestlé, where he spent 40 years as creative director, he has become busier than ever. “Packaging is not only there to protect,” he says. “It’s also there to sell.”
"We don´t need less packaging. We need more packaging."
Wallentin advises companies in Europe and Asia, he publishes books, and he has a website with more than 200 articles (packagingsense.com). He also formulates strategies for the Swiss design agency ard.
Wallentin thinks many of the big brands have a distinct shortage of communication skills. “The brand managers are often fresh out of business school and have no sales experience whatsoever,” he says. “There is far too much unnecessary information on food packaging these days. It harms sales and puts a stop to innovation. On the whole I find that European food companies are far too cautious. Chinese companies are far more willing to try new things.”
Trying new things is exactly what the local food movement is about, Wallentin explains.
“Local producers show a great deal of imagination in their packaging,” he says. “Some of it is handmade, bordering on folk art. And because they have a more direct relationship with their customers, they understand what makes them tick. The food giants could learn a lot from them – for example, by using new technologies like digital printing. You can produce very small print runs, making it possible to produce tailor-made packaging for different parts of a country or target groups.”
Raw food has made an impact in other ways as well.
“We don’t need less packaging,” he says. “We need more packaging. Apples are now sold in packages of four, whereas before they were sold in loose weight. That’s where we see real innovation. There is less happening in frozen food. People prefer to buy chilled pizza at the deli counter rather than frozen food.”
And the units are getting smaller and more adapted to different households.
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“My family and I like Coca-Cola but not in abundance, so we buy packs of 15-centilitre cans. They have been sold in Japan for decades, and finally they’re available here. Small size is a growing trend. So is multi-material packaging, containing plastic, cardboard and metal, for instance, as it enables the production of unique and special types of packaging. That’s where you see great examples of innovation with regard to form and structure. But there’s a paradox at play, because while the design is great, the communication often leaves an awful lot to be desired.”
Expect new technology to have impact on packaging, not least because of the Internet of Things, where home appliances, car, work and so on all are connected via smartphones.
“There’s a huge opportunity for products and appliances to interact,” Justin Shimek says. “The fridge will have an important role in the future. The Internet of Things will make it possible to manage problems like food waste. It will let you know when products are nearing their best-before date, even suggesting recipes for whatever is in your fridge and in your cupboards. That’s an exciting future to look forward to.”
TEXT: MICHAEL DEE PHOTO: TOMORROW MACHINE
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