Food & Beverage Packaging Basics

The 4 Roles of Food and Beverage Packaging

Food and beverage packaging is more than a pretty box that sits on a retail supermarket shelf. It is an integral part of a successful new product launch and serves as the interface between you and the consumer. There are food and beverage trends that influence decisions on how to package products that will be appealing to consumers. For example, the number of domestic food and beverage recalls have tripled since 1999. Also, an estimated 70% of all purchasing decisions are made at the retail shelf.

Food and beverage packaging can be confusing to food entrepreneurs. The Package Machinery Company Inc. provides packaging tips for those starting a food business or operating an existing food business. 

The Role of Packaging

The consumer's experience with your product is greatly influenced by its packaging:

  • Was it easy or difficult to open?
  • Was the product kept fresh by the materials in which it was packaged?
  • Was the product in one piece as intended or broken into tiny pieces?
  • Was the product contaminated?

There are four primary functions of packaging that should be addressed in packaging products:

  1. Product protection: Protection, transportation, handling, distribution, and primary and secondary packaging
  2. Product safety: Food recalls, hazards, and traceability
  3. Product freshness: Appearance, taste, freshness, and quality
  4. Brand identity: Marketing, convenience, shelf appeal, branding, and brand integrity

Product Protection

The main goal of product protection Is to keep food safe during transportation, handling, and distribution. The packaging industry is always seeking innovative packaging solutions to preserve the condition of products as they're transported from facility to consumer. Protecting products throughout the supply chain requires close consideration of the primary packaging, such as glass, aluminum, or plastic, that will encase individual products, and the secondary packaging, such as a corrugated box or pallet wrap, that holds several individual products for shipment and displays.

Common packaging solutions such as glass, rigid and flexible plastic, aluminum, and cardboard, May be used in combination. These are each preferred for specific food applications, but there is overlap. For example:

  • Bag-in-box packaging applications are used for both food, such as cereal or rice, and beverages, such as wine.
  • Aluminum is suited for cans of soda and to give food containers a premium look and feel.

Product Safety

Packaging ensures product safety to eliminate or reduce food recalls and hazards, as well as help with traceability. From juice to peanut butter, food and beverage recalls that made the headlines in recent years have brought food safety to the forefront of consumers' minds. A product recall can potentially destroy a brand's credibility, reduce product sales, and possibly result in a lawsuit.

Food product contamination can occur at any point in the supply chain. As a food or beverage company begins to grow, it is critical to maintain control over the supply chain. There are several packaging processes and technologies designed to help increase food safety measurements. While using food grade materials is mandatory, there are still hazards that can occur at the packaging stage. For example, inks and coatings used on packaging can migrate into food and beverage products.

For consumer protection, there are labeling laws and Food Drug Administration (FDA) regulations that require certain information to be included on food and beverage packaging, such as an ingredient list, the possible effects of consumption or use, and the batch ID and date of manufacture so the product can be traced or discarded on the expiration date.

Product Freshness

Proper packaging can increase a product's freshness and maintain its appearance, taste, shelf life, and quality. Regardless of your food or beverage product's recipe, if it doesn't taste fresh, you've likely lost a potentially loyal consumer. With packaged goods, the time from when your product is made until the time it is consumed can vary from days to years. The date used on a package is usually a sell-by date. However, because the consumer often keeps a product at home for a period of time before consuming it, it's important the packaging helps maintain freshness beyond the sell-by date.

There are tested and new packaging technology advancements allowing for food manufacturers to extend a product's shelf life and better control product freshness including:

  • Materials: Flexible packaging such as flow-wrapped candy bars will have a much longer shelf life than foil and paper-wrapped candy bars. There is a trade off in consumer expectation for flow-wrapped candy, so both cost and appearance should be considered.
  • Film barriers: In flexible packaging, there are different barrier properties for air, moisture, and flavor. Coatings can be added to films to change and extend the product's shelf life and enhance freshness. Some foods and beverages require a barrier. Some, such as meat products, require breathability in their wrap.
  • Resealable packaging: Typically in the form of a zipper, lid or label closure, resealable packaging helps maintain product freshness by locking out air and adds convenience for the consumer. Resealability is a great option for products meant to be consumed over multiple times.

Brand Identity

Every year, thousands of food and beverage products launch. If 70% of purchasing decisions are made at the retail shelf, you want to focus on packaging ideas that make your product stand out. Packaging has become an essential part of the marketing mix and allows you to communicate product information directly with the consumer.

Fundamentally, a good package design will attract the consumer's attention, and it will protect the product from processing through consumption. Using the right size, shape, colors, and materials in your packaging will enhance the consumer's experience with your product which, ultimately, will help build brand awareness.

If you have the resources, consider hiring a packaging designer who can help create a unique brand identity as well as help determine materials suitable for your products. However, if your budget is limited, there are cost-effective options, and you can always modify your packaging—or rebrand your product at a later date.

Bottom Line

Packaging is your direct interface with the consumer. It's an investment that, if done correctly, can help your business succeed. Research will pay off in the longevity of your package design and strong brand identification. Your investment in food and beverage packaging is the best way to get your product on the shelf and on to consumers' plates!