How tech and essential oils could naturally extend shelf life

A research project is exploring new ways to package foods so they can be stored more safely and kept fresh for longer.

25 March 2019
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image credit: Getty Images

Active food packaging – will I hear an alarm sounding from the fridge if the food is going off? 

Not quite. An EU project called NanoPack is using new packaging technology and essential oils to make food safer.

In the NanoPack system, naturally occurring mineral nanotubes are dispersed in plastic packaging films and fixed there so they don’t come into contact with the food. These nanotubes hold natural essential oils extracted from plants like oregano and thyme.

This whole use of essential oils sounds a bit like a hippie trip…

Apart from the benefit of using something natural, the essential oils have antimicrobial properties – this means they are capable of slowing down or stopping microbes from multiplying. The oils are slowly released as a vapour from the films into the packaging headspace. When inside the package, they kill or slow the growth of bacteria and moulds that can make food go off.

NanoPack is developing customised food packaging for a range of food products, including bread, fresh meat and fish, dairy, and fruits and vegetables.

This style of food packaging offers food safety, extended shelf life, improved freshness and reduced food waste.

And that’s just the benefits for consumers. It also offers reduced operational costs for manufacturers, shippers and retailers, increased competitiveness and a clever use of technology.

Vapourising packaging – very sci-fi. How is it testing?

Trials on fresh cherries and wheat-based bread loaves have shown promising results.

NanoPack films extend the shelf life of cherries by six days, which corresponds to a 40% increase in saleability. Tests on bread showed a shelf life increase of up to seven days.

The next trials will take place on dairy products, including soft and hard cheeses and yoghurt.

What more could you want than fresher food?

Well, not so fast. Turns out that consumers aren’t entirely convinced yet. The researchers interviewed 10 focus groups worldwide and found people were concerned products would become contaminated or altered after the active ingredients from the essential oils were released into the packaging.

Also, even though shelf life was extended, consumers were left feeling suspicious, questioning whether food could truly be made to stay fresh for longer.

“The benefits of active packaging solutions are not always aligned in consumer minds,” said Polymeros Chrysochou, associate professor at the Aarhus University of Denmark, who helped conduct the research. “So, for example, extending the shelf life of a product and keeping its freshness seem to be a contradiction in consumers’ minds.”

Freshness is a rather vague promised benefit and people have different interpretations of it,added Chrysochou. “They may perceive it in terms of the time passed from the production, where a shorter time equates a fresher food product,” he said.“This means that consumers do not see a product with an extended shelf life as being necessarily fresh, since a longer time has passed since production.”

So it’s a case of mind over matter?

Interestingly, respondents were more ready to embrace the use of this technology, but were uncomfortable with the essential oils as they connected them with non-food applications.

“In terms of benefits, there is a trade-off between extending a product shelf life (what interests food producers) and freshness (what interests the consumers),” Chrysochou said. “Such a trade-off is very important to understand since a possible benefit from a food packaging technology that is extending shelf life may not result in acceptance if freshness is compromised in the consumers’ mind.”

The research further indicated that retailers’ main concern was that new technologies should meet product safety criteria. Only after this has been resolved can it be aligned with the strategy and internal processes of the company.

The project has another year to resolve these kinks.

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