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Food packaging innovation unearthed at IFT18
Food innovations are epitomized in these four shining examples of emerging packaging developments from IFT18.

Food packaging innovation unearthed at IFT18

Four gold nuggets of packaging uncovered this summer include wireless-heated containers, ecommerce packaging lessons and advice from brands, breakthrough aseptic packaging and a nutty plastic additive.

Held mid-July at McCormick Place in Chicago, the 2018 Institute of Food Technologists' trade show served up as usual mega portions of ingredients via supplier exhibits and related technical and conference sessions. There’s also an abundance of R&D- and processing-related supplies and services.

Early in my career IFT was an annual all-hands-on-deck coverage event, but for the last two decades it’s been more of a fringe show from a packaging perspective. Even so, it’s that prospecting aspect of having a large show with scant packaging that gets my journalism juices going in walking IFT18’s foodie aisles. Or, atypically as this year, spending a sizeable chunk of the day listening to compelling presentations by industry experts and up-and-comers.

A one-day prospecting quest yielded several sizable nuggets of packaging innovation, eureka moments highlighted in this debriefing. In order, these consisted of an induction heating technology that turns the wireless charger into an anywhere food-heating device, major brands’ insights and advice on ecommerce packaging, a new kind of aseptic packaging that stands up and stands out from the competition and a surprising byproduct that adds value and performance to plastics.

Food innovators make a splash in the IFT ‘shark tank’

The day started off with an innovative bang in a 90-minute Food Disruption Challenge that featured six food company startups. It was informative and a lot of fun, and the Shark Tank-like format featured an actual Shark Tank judge as emcee, Daymond John. The large ballroom close to the McCormick's central entrance was at near capacity.

Instead of critical venture capitalist investors, the six judges comprised sharp-minded food specialists and start-up managers asking probing questions about the business model, the technology and more.

Most of the six entry-participants were sustainable related developments, including insects as food, localized vertical hydroponic farms, new products like flour and organic fertilizer from food waste, etc. All attendees like me could vote for a People’s Choice Winner of a $5,000 prize; that winner was C-Fu Foods, which offers highly sustainable, high-protein insect-based food ingredients. A representative noted that the company’s next challenge was to move beyond crickets to others among the millions of insect species. Now that's a unprecedented and perennial bumper crop of sustainable sourcing options.

The company that claimed the $25,000 (wow!) Grand Prize was Renewal Mill, "a food waste reprocessing venture that upcycles fibrous byproducts from food manufacturing into high value end-use goods."

However, one of the runner-up presenters (seen in the image above; technology shown below) pitched convenient induction-heated packaged foods, heated using a slightly modified wireless phone charger and packaging that requires a metal insert, a heat sensor and a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag.

Inductive Intelligence was THE packaging winner in my book for its breakthrough concept for on-the-go, ultra-convenient and thinking-outside-the-microwave-oven reheating. What’s especially cool is that the "smart heatable packaging" technology taps the energy readily available with the already-hot-selling wireless phone charger; some 210 million of those standard recharging bases were sold in 2017. Key points struck by IFT presenter Greg Clark, the company's co-founder and CEO:

  • It’s a safe, smart and convenient method that doesn’t require a consumer to watch the product while heating, which is precisely programmed for every internet-enabled product;
  • The method takes 30% longer, but uses 90% less energy than a microwave;
  • It adds 5 cents per unit to the cost of packaging for a range of products from popcorn to soup and formats that include paper, plastic, glass, foil pouches and metal cans.

“Bottom-up induction heating is a more consistent heating method that conventional alternatives,” Clark pointed out. “While our focus is on single-serve consumer packaging, there’s opportunities in larger sizes including meal kits, military meals and other applications.”

While the IFT “Food Innovation Challenge” experience was exciting and informative for the hundreds of us in the audience, how did Clark feel about his company’s exposure?

“The entire IFT event was a great experience for us,” he told Packaging Digest. “It opened doors to food and packaging companies, provided great mentorship and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time until Daymond John gives us a call!  The event also helped us connect with people doing research in the area of heat transfer, which in time will be extremely helpful.”

For more details read our follow-up interview with Inductive Intelligence, Consumers can heat products on the go with smart packaging, published September 13.

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MinnPack 2018 (October 31 – November 1, Minneapolis) is part of the Midwest’s largest advanced design and manufacturing event that brings you the latest in materials, automation, packaging and more. ___________________________________________________________________________________

 Next: General Mills, Mondelēz talk ecommerce food packaging

Several brand representatives delivered ecommerce insights during a morning session entitled How ecommerce is changing the food packaging landscape timed, appropriately enough, a week after Amazon Prime Day. A presentation by Michigan State University board member and General Mills’ Jay Slagle,  senior R&D manager—delivered by a substitute since he could not make it—led off the session by pointing to the dynamic variety of delivery options that include Shipt, Peapod, Instacart, Amazon Fresh and Prime Now, Walmart To Go. Added to that are “Click and Collect” options from Target, Walmart and Kroger. Some takeaways from the talk:

“Walmart’s model for free Click and Collect pickup is like going to a very large vending machine and providing a code to release the groceries and then putting those products in your car.”

“Unilever has a team of 800 employees focused on ecommerce.”

“General Mills experienced a 50% increase in its global ecommerce business year-over-year.”

“In 2009 Kellogg’s densified cereal box packaging for distribution by making them squatter and while the products failed on shelf, it’s an idea that could do well in ecommerce.”

“The winners in all this will be consumers and companies that adapt their distribution modes.”

Kerri Clar,  associate director of global packaging at Mondelēz Intl. ,was scheduled to present, but because her flight was cancelled moderator Eva Almenar-Rosaleny of MSU stepped up to present on her behalf; key takeaways from those remarks:

“Product availability is mission critical!”

“A downside of ecommerce is that brands can’t billboard effectively.”

Due to online product photos “pack sizing and relative appearance can be confusing if not misleading.”

“The average product ‘touches’ for brick-and-mortar are five, for Amazon the number is 20.”

“Gifting is a key ecommerce opportunity area.”

“Ecommerce is a must-win sales and brand-building opportunity.”

Next: A new kind of aseptic packaging

One of those few exhibitor visits was to that of Evansville, IN-based AmeriQual Foods, familiar-to-me for an in-plant visit made years ago. That tour was a case study look at the company’s batch retort pouch operations for Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs) provided to the military that the contract packager specialized in at the time.

Decades later the company is still working with pouches, only now these are colorful, consumer-targeted stand-up pouches.

So what’s new about that? It’s because the company is using a leading-edge microwave aseptic processing technology and a distinctive “winged” closure that makes the twist-off opening and reclosure a snap.

That makes it the first aseptic spouted pouch in the United States, Packaging Digest was told.

The newer thermal processing method employed is microwave-powered AseptiWave, which we first reported on at IFT 16, and was being used at Wright Foods, Troy, NC, an AmeriQual division.

Versus conventional heat exchanger thermal processing, AseptiWave claims faster heat-up times, improved run time, increased yields and less fouling, all without consumables or wear parts.

Flash forward to the breakthrough unveiled at IFT18 that blends the near-past with the current and future for pouched products such as apple sauces and related fruit purees, soups, sauces, fruit smoothies, dairy and dairy alternatives, puddings and hummus.

“It opens up pouched adult food options including for meal kits,” said Leena Klaker, Wright Foods’ manager of research and development.

Product volumes range from around 3.2oz/4oz to 14oz; barrier pouches can be clear or a foil lamination.

The packaging system running the preformed pouches is a Scholle IPN filler. The roll of preformed pouches pre-irradiated for sterility, and the preplaced plug is lifted off for filling within the aseptic zone then reseated and resealed.

Next: Surprisingly nutty-good research for plastics

A presentation sponsored by the Almond Board of California (Modesto, CA) pointed to the use of almond shells as an ingredient in plastics for applications including packaging.

Nutty idea? Literally it is, but figuratively it’s not—the shells enhance the plastics’ performance beyond traditional fillers and materials by increasing the plastic’s strength. The shells are being tested as a partial plastic replacement in plastics trays and pallets and other containers and products.

It’s one of the more interesting aspects of research and development conducted by the Western Regional Research Center (Albany, CA) of the United States Department of Agriculture.

The team has been working on sustainable agricultural-derived plastics for at least 20 years with a scope well beyond fillers,” notes Bill Ort, USDA research leader in Bioproducts. “We’ve quietly worked with companies like EarthShell, Cargill-Dow (Ingeo), Clorox-Glad, Metabolix and others to create sustainable packaging solutions.”

Because California produces more than 80% of the world's almonds, almond shells come into the picture as a biomass resource.

Currently, almond shells are used for dairy ranch bedding or orchard floor mulching, according to the Almond Board’s Guangwei Huang, associate director, food research and technology, who notes that  although current values for shells are down a few dollars a ton from up to $50 per ton a couple of years ago, they are not disposed of in landfills.

“Any use as plastic fillers would add value to shells,” Huang tells Packaging Digest. “We are assessing many potential outlets for almond shells and hulls, more specifically looking at higher-value options. Incorporating torrefied almond shells into recycled plastics is one of the higher value potentials we have identified and investigated for almond shells.”

Additionally, the shells have benefits beyond traditional plastic fillers.

“Using shells as fillers in polymer composites have multiple advantages over commercial additives, e.g., cost, energy consumption, renewability, biodegradability, landfilling,” Orts explains. “However, almond shells are hydrophilic, which limits their incorporation into most polymer matrices. Our research shows we can make stiffer, stronger and more heat-resistant composites (see Heat Deflection Temperature chart) compared to unfilled polymer. We're starting to work with industrial companies to optimize materials to meet their specifications and work towards scaling up.”

The shells are collected and processed and undergo “torrefaction,” described by Orts as process where the shell biomass is heated to 200-300 ⁰C in the absence of air and oxygen. 

“Compared to raw biomass, torrefied biomass is more hydrophobic, making it more chemically compatible with polymer matrix, and more grindable, reducing the energy required to mill to a small particle size,” he points out.

The torrefied shells can replace common industrial fillers such as calcium carbonate, talc and carbon black.

The material has its pluses and minuses.

Using almond shells as a filler reduces the amount of petroleum-based plastic, the landfill of almond shells and of course better utilization of almond byproducts. According to Orts, the major disadvantage  is that recyclers such as CalRecycle will not recycle the composite material. 

You can read the full report at Packaging Digest’s Informa sister publication PlasticsToday.

Final thoughts

I’ll close this report with an impression that there was more to IFT18 than technologists and technology, there was also a demographic aspect on display that's worth mentioning. My observation was that IFT18 drew a lot of younger industry professionals and enthusiasts—Millennials and Gen Xers—a high percentage of whom were women, dramatically more than the usual industry trade shows I frequent. That impression was corroborated by a well-traveled, well-networked young female packaging professional who attended last year’s IFT in Las Vegas.

In any event, these appear as indications of a dynamic and inclusive era in food development with all the ingredients that promises a bright today and brighter tomorrow.

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MinnPack 2018 (October 31 – November 1, Minneapolis) is part of the Midwest’s largest advanced design and manufacturing event that brings you the latest in materials, automation, packaging and more. ___________________________________________________________________________________

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