Packaging innovations in the fruit and vegetable sector

By Pablo Añón, Agrifood journalist

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Boxes of striking colours, packaging with geometric shapes, extravagant designs. Packaging is not new, but it is now, once established, that its importance has taken on a special value. A clear objective comes to the fore. To catch the eye of a consumer for who shopping for just a consolidated product is no longer enough. The eyes need to be seduced before the sense of taste. We use our eyes as the first filter. Design sells, and the horticultural sector is not alien to this. It is estimated that three seconds is all that the buyer needs for something to catch their attention. But … what makes you decide to buy one tray of tomatoes rather than another?

The answers can vary a lot, although one that is especially important currently is the packaging. The first function of the box that the product goes into is purely protective. It prevents the product from possible damage. The quality of the fruit or vegetable, between the field and the shelf where it will be sold can deteriorate, which may mean it loses all its value or becomes difficult to sell

Industrial design engineers Irene Rodrigo and Victor Prat describe a type of containers according to their functionality and the relationship with the product to be packaged. They point out that one of the most important is the primary packaging, since it is in contact with the product and shows commercial competition. They also stress that the development of a certain packaging depends on the characteristics, properties and restrictions of the item.

The correct choice of horticultural container is pivotal when it comes to increasing competitiveness and trajectory. In this sense, it is considered a variable to analyse when calibrating profitability, environmental impact and food safety of the product. Packaging has gradually gone from being an industry that produces containers for products to become a creator of strategic pieces of communication, which are basic in the consumer’s subsequent decision to purchase. Several studies show that 60% of buyers select a product due to its packaging. Current customers value the fact that it is convenient and fundamentally sustainable.


Sustainability of packaging                 

The success of packaging that has lasts in time is the satisfaction of the customer who uses it. We are not facing the same consumer profile that existed a few years ago. Shoppers are better informed and more aware. One of the fields where this fact is most noticeable is in the application of sustainable solutions where not only the final product is considered, but also each of the intermediate stages that lead to it.  The use of energy sources and raw materials that respect the ecosystem and facilitate a more efficient and more productive process is becoming more significant. There is a more interest in studying a product’s useful life. Everything necessary to make the consumer experience sublime. In the horticultural sector, this will become more evident since fresh products have a shorter life and waste will be avoided. In this regard, the Flexomed company from Murcia is a good example when it brought out the doypack bag that absorbs ethylene from fruits and vegetables to lengthen their shelf life. The characteristics of this type of bag keep products fresh because of the properties used for this application, in addition to providing great resistance.


Cardboard versus plastic    

The Association of Manufacturers and Distributors in collaboration with the Spanish Association of manufacturers of containers and packaging of corrugated cardboard published, at the end of 2017, a report which showed that 64% of young people between 18 and 35 years opt for cardboard or wood packaging versus 15% who opt for plastic. They choose sustainable boxes because they consider them more beneficial to the environment. The study comes to a devastating conclusion. There should be a greater presence of healthy products, more sustainable packaging and a greater range of organic and biological products. Some ask themselves, however, if the orange, lemon or apple skin is enough in itself as a protective barrier. They argue that plastic waste ends up contaminating our natural environment. Another economic and sustainable solution seems to be the one found in Italy by scientists from the Smart Materials research centre, who found an original container made entirely from the remains of unsold artichokes that were rotting in the fruit and vegetable market in Genoa. To do this, they directly converted artichokes through an aqueous procedure to later recompose compounds from sustainable, thermoplastic and thermo-formed sources. Some sources point out that this can become a viable alternative to reduce the millions of tons of plastic waste that we generate.

Consumers look for fruits and vegetables that are healthier, fresher and tastier. Intelligent packaging helps in the task of delivering products in better condition and in better maintaining their taste and nutrients. Plastic packaging made from fossil materials not only helps the carbon footprint but is not even renewable. A recent study from the University of Bologna revealed that corrugated packaging reduces microbiological contamination compared to reusable plastic crates, which prolongs the product’s useful life by up to 3 days.


Smarter and more efficient packaging                   

The future of packaging in the horticultural sector seems to foresee a clearer horizon for producing smart packaging (giving more information to the consumer), and in terms of efficiency (lengthening the useful life of the product). At the same time, there will be a trend towards flexible packaging that gives brands an opportunity to introduce characteristics such as ease of use and packaging functionality. Brand image will be built on the quality of the consumer experience, and this will greatly influence the tendency to buy again. It will not suffice to say that a product is totally natural. The consumer will not be satisfied with this and will want to see evidence of this on the packaging information (ingredients, preservatives, etc.) that should be easily located and expressed with total transparency.


Creativity in packaging                 

Creativity plays a decisive role in the design of effective packaging given its importance in the decision to purchase. But how can you be creative? Designs are striking and original, using quality paper and materials and adding extra features. From classical laminates, in both matt and high-gloss, that bring elegance to packaging, even going as far as stamping, stock varnishing, and 3D pre-cut relief. These finishes will capture consumers’ attention and improve both the perception of the brand, which will be able to position itself more effectively in the mind of the buyer, as well as increasing sales. Vintage design will be a trend. Retro and “handmade” design will continue to be very fashionable.


Innovations in 2018

Some of the main innovations this year, in Fruit Logistica, according to infopack, are, for example, the “LogoFrucht”, a procedure for the printing on fruit and vegetables of any type and shape. The products can be printed, without damaging the article, with a flavourless, water-resistant food ink. There are also packing material for fruit and vegetables, which have been made organically with up to 50% fresh grass fibres. Material that helps to reduce the consumption of water and energy in a sustainable way (“Scheufelen Grass Paper- Greenliner”). Those who like smoothies will be in luck with “The Alberts Smoothie Station”, a smoothie station that allows you to prepare them there and then, 100% natural and adapted to satisfy each customer’s individual desires. Oriental fans can enjoy the “Wasabi Giftbox”, an untreated wooden gift box, with wasabi root. It is a culinary proposal without additives. Finally, there’s a recyclable bag developed to biologically combat thrips that contains a means to spread the Amblyseius swirskiimesostigmatic mite.

The latest edition of Hispack, which was held from 8 to 11 May this year, focused precisely on the use of technological innovations and social changes in recent times that explain the path ahead. The digital transformation will allow the development of containers and packaging which customers can interact with and receive sensations from, in the way of feedback. Social changes are also essential, because they will transform purchasing trends and will cause greater demand for smaller containers, with greater usability, interactivity and sustainability. Recyclable, biodegradable materials will be used that allow greater savings in energy and raw materials.

The challenge of packaging will come hand in hand with the circular economy, whose foundation is based on optimised use of materials and waste management in symbiosis with the environment. It is a model which is more coherent with nature. In the next few years, the focus will be on sustainability, automation, digitisation, logistics and user experience. Packaging will be more than mere containers to hold fruit but be a product in itself. The consumer’s objective will not only be to buy some golden delicious apples, for example, but there will also be a vehicular experience that will provide him or her with a double stimulus and that will allow them to play with senses other than taste.