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Convenience and Health: Twin Powerhouses of Product Development

February 12, 2008
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A combination of trends rooted in commercial, lifestyle and demographic changes is keeping life interesting in the food industry. Consumers’ desire for convenient, healthy foods is an ongoing motivator for new product development. Increasingly, so are issues such as sustainability, retail competition, food safety and shrinking household size. Packaging certainly is doing its part to deliver products that address the various requirements. Here’s a look at how it’s all shaking out.

Convenience

Busy, time-pressed lifestyles continue to drive demand for foods that are convenient to tote and consume.

Shelf-stable prepared foods that can be tucked into a briefcase or backpack provide a practical option for away-from-home eating. And for home consumption, products that are easy to prepare and clean up after are the go-to items; the list of new entries in this category gets longer by the month.

“Convenience is king for a lot of shoppers these days,” says Bill Greer, director of communications at the Food Marketing Institute, citing the many dual-income families that don’t have time to cook, consumers who don’t like to cook and those who don’t know how. “They’re looking for help in getting food on the table.”

Packaging is making that possible, with convenience features such as portability, single-serving sizes and in-package microwaveability.

Steam-in packaging for frozen vegetables, first seen last year with the introduction of Birds Eye Steamfresh, has quickly gained momentum. Steamfresh pre-cut, flash-frozen vegetables are packaged in a bag with a patented vent that releases built-up steam. The steam circulates evenly inside the bag during cooking, and the vegetables retain their color and crisp texture.

General Mills Inc. also uses a self-venting, steam-in package for its Green Giant Simply Steam frozen vegetables. To convey the cook-in benefit, the secondary packaging-a carton-includes an illustration of the bag venting steam.

Kraft Foods Inc. uses packaging technology of a different kind for its microwaveable Oscar Mayer Deli Creations sandwich melts, introduced in January. The packaging is a paperboard-based microwaveable tray with laminated quilting; the quilted pockets expand in the microwave oven to contact the product.

As the hot inner surface of the package heats the bread, it also drives away moisture, eliminating sogginess. Cooking time for the refrigerated product, which includes a proprietary dough recipe, is 60 seconds.

In the shelf-stable category, which is particularly attractive to on-the-go consumers, Hormel Foods recently restaged its Compleats product line.

“Consumers’ demand for convenience is a major driver when developing new products in the food industry. We certainly had that in mind when we developed the Hormel Compleats line. It caters to hard-working people looking for convenient, quick and satisfying meal options,” says Brett Asay, product manager at Hormel Foods.

Merchandised in the canned, prepared foods aisle, Hormel Compleats are retorted meals that include a protein, vegetables and/or grains. Packaging for the microwaveable, single-serving meals is a polypropylene tray with a paperboard sleeve.

Busy consumers increasingly are turning to products like Compleats. According to Nielsen Scantrack Data, the $452 million shelf-stable microwave meal segment is increasing at double-digit rates.


Health and wellness

The prevalence of childhood obesity and an aging population continue to drive the preoccupation with health, wellness and the role of diet, even among those who are neither old nor young.

“Consumers are increasingly seeing the link between diet and health,” says FMI’s Greer. “More consumers are looking at preventive measures to stay healthy or things they can do to feel more fit and improve their sense of well-being. That includes exercise, and it includes diet as a major component.”

In a Datamonitor study, approximately 80% of U.S. and European consumers said they were concerned about food and health issues. Two-thirds said they had taken steps to eat more healthily in the past year.

Baby boomers, in particular, are paying more attention to dietary choices as age-related diseases and disorders become a fact of life. For the aging population, which includes 79 million boomers, food represents a way to control weight and treat afflictions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, reduced immune function and poor digestion.

Consequently, boomers are reading food packaging more carefully to avoid calories, salt, cholesterol, carbohydrates and trans fat. They’re also looking at labels to identify the product’s functional elements, such as vitamins, minerals, fiber and prebiotic/probiotic ingredients.


On the label

To make it easier for consumers to wade through all this information, food companies are augmenting the nutrition panel on their packaging with graphic icons that highlight the product’s benefits.

Beginning later this year, consumers will see Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) prominently displayed on the front of Kellogg’s cereal packages in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

In the United States, the new packaging will feature an easy-to-use labeling system on the front of the carton. Icons will identify the amount of calories, total fat, sodium and sugars per serving plus vitamin and mineral content. The summary provides a quick snapshot of how a food fits into the consumer’s daily diet and complements the nutrition label found on the side panel.

Oldways Preservation Trust, a nonprofit group, has developed the Med Mark to flag products that support the Mediterranean diet. The mark is a postage stamp-sized packaging symbol that sports the image of an amphora jug.

Oldways previously came out with the Whole Grain Stamp. The stamp, a symbol that identifies whole-grain products, now appears on more than 1,000 food packages.

With so much riding on health claims, food companies must be mindful about the claim language they put on packaging. “If you make a claim, you have to back it up. Otherwise its considered to be mis-branded” by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), says Christopher Lee, a partner at law firm Dickie McCamey and Chilcote.

In some cases, that means submitting the claim language to the FDA for approval. Earlier this year, Frito-Lay Inc., a PepsiCo division, did just that for an on-label claim regarding unsaturated fat and reduction of heart disease. The FDA allowed the claim, which Frito-Lay intends to use for certain vegetable oils, spreads and shortenings.

For healthy foods geared to children, package graphics are less about science and more about fun. Even licensed characters, historically the province of candy and sugary cereals, are being used to encourage healthy eating among kids.

To get children to eat their green beans, peas and corn, Del Monte Foods uses Sesame Street characters on labels and multipack carriers for canned vegetables. Survey results from Sesame Workshop indicate preschoolers eat 28% more broccoli when the vegetable is branded using a Sesame Street character.


Portion control

To meet the needs of consumers focused on weight control, food companies continue to emphasize portion-control packaging such as the 100-calorie pack. Already popular for cookies, popcorn, crackers, chips and yogurt, 100-calorie packs are now infiltrating categories such as meat snacks and candy.

Oh Boy! Oberto has launched 100 Calorie Jerky Bites, distributed by Frito-Lay. The Oberto 100-calorie packaging carries PepsiCo’s Smart Spot symbol, which identifies products that meet nutrition criteria based on statements from the FDA and the Institute of Medicine.

For weight watchers with a sweet tooth, The Hershey Co. has introduced 100 Calorie Pretzel Bars, Dark Chocolate Bars and Wafer Bars. Seven 100-calorie bars are packed in each carton.

Organic products

As attention to health and wellness has increased, so too have sales of organic foods. Rightly or wrongly, consumers continue to equate “organic” with “healthy.” Research from the Organic Trade Association indicates organic food sales grew 22.1% in 2006 to $16.9 billion, up from $13.8 billion in 2005.

Increased use of organic products, plus the emerging trend toward buying locally produced items, is challenging how the industry thinks about packaging.

For produce sold through farmers’ markets, packaging is minimal or nonexistent. Processed organic products obviously require packaging, but to suit the preferences of the target market, these are often packaged in earth-friendly materials.

“Consumers who use organic foods are more environmentally sensitive,” explains Gwynne Rogers, Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) business director at the Natural Marketing Institute.

“Environmentally friendly packaging wouldn’t be the reason they choose a particular product, but it’s a nice secondary benefit and it helps as a tiebreaker if all the other product characteristics are equal,” Rogers adds.

Recyclable packaging, such as glass, is one route organic food marketers are taking. They’re also using packaging made from sustainable materials created from corn, sugarcane stalks, switchgrass, palm fiber and other renewable resources.

So far the corn-based material has achieved the greatest traction. Newman’s Own Organics uses it to package lettuce, and Naturally Iowa uses it for organic milk.


Sustainability

Large food companies and non-organic producers also are investing in environmental sustainability for reasons ranging from cost control to social responsibility. Consumers and retail customers are providing strong encouragement, as well.

Procter & Gamble Co., Kraft, ConAgra Foods Inc., The Dannon Co., Unilever and Frito-Lay are just a few of the companies that have made a commitment to sustainability.

The sustainability initiative at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is making a serious impact on all food companies that supply the retail giant. Wal-Mart recently rolled out a Packaging Scorecard that enables its 60,000-plus suppliers to determine how environmentally friendly their packages are versus competitors’.

Metrics on the Scorecard include greenhouse gas emissions, cube utilization, recycled content and transportation. Wal-Mart’s goal is to reduce packaging across its supply chain by 5% by 2013.

“Over the coming years, and definitely beginning in 2008, our buyers will start looking at more than just price in the selection process for goods we purchase,” said Matt Kistler, vice president of package and product innovations for the Sam’s Club division of Wal-Mart, speaking at Pack Expo last fall.

Setting a good example, the retailer has switched to sustainable packages for many of its private-label products. Wal-Mart already uses corn-based packaging for cut fruit, herbs, strawberries and Brussels sprouts. The company estimates the switch to sustainable packaging for these products will save the equivalent of 800,000 gallons of gasoline and prevent more than 11 million pounds of greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere.

Wal-Mart also is testing corn-based cake and donut boxes, bread bags, strawberry clamshells, deli trays and salad bowls.

Retail Environment

Stiffer competition at retail is making waves not only for retailers but also for the food companies that supply them.

“The food marketing industry is extremely competitive right now. The discount operations have posed a significant competitive challenge to the industry,” says FMI’s Greer.

One outcome is an increasing number of private-label brands. “If a [retailer] can come out with its own brand of a particular product, one that consumers like, it is giving consumers a very strong reason for shopping at its stores,” Greer says. FMI research reveals that 87.8% of retailers are responding to rising competition by developing store brands.

Among national brand owners, this shift is making brand marketing more important than ever. Hormel, with foods in the refrigerated section and grocery aisles, is in the midst of its first-ever brand unification campaign. The initiative includes a new brand mark on packaging for all Hormel-branded products.

Similarly, H.J. Heinz Co. is leveraging its brand clout with a package redesign that creates a family look for the company’s non-ketchup grocery products. The new packaging for the items, which include pickles, relishes, vinegar and sauces, features a unified design that highlights the Heinz logo and keystone-shaped label.

By providing consistency in the look and feel of packaging across numerous categories, Hormel and Heinz are gaining the type of store-wide impact that private labels have long enjoyed. Consumers walking through the store see the brand’s familiar graphics, aisle after aisle, and brand recognition deepens through sheer repetition.

Food Safety

An underlying concern for all participants in the food supply chain, from retailers to growers, is food safety. Spinach, beef, peanut butter and pet food have all been linked with outbreaks of foodborne illness in the past year, to the alarm of consumers, food companies and the government.

There has been a “dramatic decline in consumer confidence in the safety of food in supermarkets,” Greer says, pointing to a 2007 FMI survey in which only 66% of responding consumers were “completely” or “somewhat confident” of supermarket food safety-down from 82% in 2006.

In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that foodborne diseases cause 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States annually. Although the number of infections caused by several microorganisms continues to decrease, E. coli infections have gone up in the past two years.

Congressional response includes the introduction of the Safe Food Act of 2007. If enacted, this legislation will establish a Food Safety Administration tasked with ensuring food safety, improving food-safety research and preventing foodborne-illness outbreaks and intentional contamination. The new agency would become the administrator and enforcer of food safety laws; currently, 15 federal agencies administer 30-plus food-safety laws.

Activity in developing packaging solutions to food safety issues is worldwide. The Sentinel Bioactive Paper Network (www.bioactivepaper.ca), for example, is a new Canadian consortium of academia, industry and government agencies. Its goal is to develop affordable paper-based packages that incorporate biologically active chemicals designed to detect and deactivate E. coli, salmonella and other bacteria and viruses.

In industry and academia, food safety is largely a technology issue. To improve the accuracy of date coding and assure traceability, food companies are adopting coding technology that links coding equipment with resource-management software. Food packagers also are including more track-and-trace data in product codes and providing more human-readable data in the codes, for the consumer’s benefit.

On another front, temperature sensors are gaining ground. To assure food safety and quality, Albertsons supermarkets now require temperature monitoring devices on all the produce, fresh meat and seafood received at Albertsons distribution centers.

The company’s preferred sensor technology is a label that tracks the temperature of a perishable product’s environment during distribution. Lights on the sensor indicate if temperature specifications have been breached, enabling Albertsons to take appropriate action.

To enhance the protectiveness of food-packaging materials, researchers are exploring anti-microbial approaches and nanotechnology.

“There is a tremendous amount of interest in anti-microbials of all sorts, both in the commercial world and in the academic research world,” says Joseph Hotchkiss, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Food Science at Cornell University.

Hotchkiss’ team is exploring ways to make packaging and food-contact surfaces, such as conveyor belts, anti-microbial. By attaching peptides to surfaces, they can create a contact layer that is lethal to microbes; the peptides kill the microorganisms by poking a hole in their membranes.

Applications of nanotechnology for packaging are a research focus for some of the largest food companies, including Unilever, Nestlé and Kraft, as well as for academic researchers worldwide. Projects include the development of nanosensors that can detect and flag the presence of pathogens in food.

Additionally, with sustainability in mind, scientists in Finland are working to boost the barrier properties of biopolymers. The Tailored Nanostabilisers for Biocomponent Interfaces Project is testing the performance of biopolymer packaging materials that incorporate nano-sized enzymes that improve barrier. Adding enzymes to other packaging materials could improve them, too, providing a freshness indicator or other functionality.

While global studies continue to look at expanding the use of nanotechnology in packaging, some believe commercialization is moving too fast. A report by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., recommends an oversight system, at the least, or regulations on the use of nanotechnology to ensure public safety. The report contends that nanotech products may create unforeseen hazards to health and the environment.

Concern about risks hasn’t slowed development so far, though. The number of packaging products using nanotechnology has exploded from about 40 three years ago to more than 400 now.

Changing Demographics

For the coming year, a trend that food marketers, packagers and retailers alike should monitor is the growing number of small households, including singles. Research published by the American Meat Institute and FMI indicates that single Americans currently head up almost 53 million households.

Food companies are already moving to provide products in smaller packages to meet the needs of small households.

These include four-packs of Oroweat hamburger buns, three-packs of fresh chicken tenders and individually packaged fresh chicken breasts from Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., and three-packs of Chiquita bananas. The latter, dubbed Chiquita Fresh & Ready, are packaged in a lidded tray with self-regulating atmosphere that extends shelf life by four days.

In addition to helping small households reduce waste, smaller packages address a changing economic reality: They are more affordable for seniors and others on a fixed income. With the first wave of boomers starting to retire, the number of budget-conscious consumers is poised to rise sharply.

“Food companies want to make sure their products remain affordable, that they are offered in a size and at a price point that won’t automatically get dismissed,” says Bill Bishop, chairman of consulting firm Willard Bishop LLC.

“The product and package need to allow people to participate given the money they either have or feel they have available,” Bishop adds. “The goal is to right-size packages to maximize price-point affordability.”

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