Any walk through a supermarket will introduce you to a variety of fruits and vegetables from across the world as well as grains, treats, meat, dairy and cereal to name just a few of the food items that are likely to be on offer.
You will see a rainbow of colours, and all shapes and sizes, all looking delectable and ready to eat. They reach your home fresh and irresistible, but how does it look so good when most of it has travelled hundreds, if not thousands of miles?
One of the main reasons for this is the packaging that these food items have been surrounded by for most of their journey. This has been specially chosen to protect and preserve your food, making sure that maintains its freshness and quality throughout, giving it the longest life possible.
Whilst there are a variety of packaging options out there, the most popular one is still plastic, as it offers unrivalled preservation qualities.
How does plastic protect food?
When it comes to food preservation, plastic offers three types of protection: chemical, physical and biological. Despite it being a source of life, oxygen is particularly harmful to food as it can help to accelerate the deterioration process. Plastic is used as a protective barrier against this and other chemicals in the surrounding environment. It is also capable of preventing the damage caused by invisible or infrared lights.
Food is also vulnerable to damage during handling and shipping, whether that means being dropped, bashed or squashed, and plastic is one of the most effective ways to protect it from this.
The unseen enemy to food is the billions of microorganisms that surround us. These include a significant number of pathogens which are capable of causing food to spoil quickly. Plastic can stop this from happening whilst also preventing contamination from harmful diseases, ensuring that food is as safe as possible for us to eat.
It is estimated that bananas in a bag can have their shelf life extended by up to three days, whilst a piece of steak will survive an extra 10 days and the film around a cucumber can keep it fresh for up to a fortnight. By protecting food in a multitude of ways, it is much more likely to last for longer. This gives time for packing, transportation and its life on the shop floor, not to mention how long it then spends in your kitchen cupboards. By being effectively preserved, food holds on to its flavour and freshness without any danger of contamination by harmful substances.
The benefits of plastic
Nick Mills, General Manager at Ansini, specialists in vacuum forming packaging added, “One of the huge benefits of using plastic for food packaging is its affordability. Whilst materials such as glass and aluminium can do a similar job, they are much more expensive, which impacts on the profits that a brand can make as well as the cost of the product for the consumer. Plastic can be as much as half the price of glass, which can be a big part of the buying decisions when a customer is standing in front of the shelves. In addition to the cost of the item, it also saves the consumer huge amounts of money by preventing food from spoiling and being wasted.”
Alternatives to plastic are not only expensive, they are also weighty. Size and weight have a massive impact on the transportation of a product, meaning that less items can be moved in any given shipment. This can then significantly increase the transportation needs for a food product, which has an effect on the environment as well as the cost. By converting to lighter and more compact plastic alternatives, the transport issues are reduced, which works in the favour of everyone, including the planet. For example, it is estimated that transporting drinks which are packaged in plastic bottles uses as much as 40% less fuel than moving glass bottles.
Safety should be the biggest concern of any food producer, and plastic plays an enormous part in this. Not only does food look better and remain fresher when it is sealed in plastic, it is also more protected. Plastic packaging can be thermo-sealed, which helps to keep it airtight and prevent any kind of contamination. It is also capable of absorbing vibration and shock caused by sudden movements such as going over a bump in the road during transportation or being dropped or knocked when handled by staff or customers. In the same situations, glass can shatter, and aluminium can dent, whilst plastic is more likely to maintain its integrity and protect the items it holds.
It might seem a small factor, but the fact that plastic can be transparent is also important. Allowing the consumer to see what they are buying makes it more appealing and allows them to have the confidence that the product is fresh and meets their expectations. Boxes and tins stand in the way of this and can mean that the product does not leap of the shelves in the way that suppliers might hope that it would.
We all know that plastic is developing a bad name because of its own impact on the environment, however, its benefits cannot be denied. That is why a lot of work and research is now being put into finding ways to make this material more environmentally friendly. From looking at the methods in which it is produced, to the ability to recycle it once it has been used, plastic is undergoing a transformation to make it much greener whilst still being able to do the job we love it for.
Whilst many have felt that plastic packaging on food is unnecessary, it soon becomes clear that it is actually the most viable option for keeping food safe and fresh whilst still keeping the cost of a product at a sensible level. With moves to increase the green credentials of plastic, it is clear that this is one form of packaging that will stay with us and our food for a long time to come.