ANUFOOD India 2023

How packaging contributes to the safety of Ready-to-Eat and Ready-to-Cook foods

Photo - vectorpouch on Freepik

Author - Insha Naureen

Today's consumers are experiencing evolving food habits and cooking styles due to cultural influences, urbanization, and social changes. The adoption of convenience foods like ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook is unprecedented as they require minimal time and effort. However, this is also ushering in a wave of concern regarding the safety of such foods, which depends on efficient packaging to keep them safe for consumption till they hit the market shelves and beyond.

Food safety and quality are crucial factors for packaging convenience foods like RTE and RTC. The safety of these foods is impacted by

  • Product formulation (water activity, edible coating, pH, internal microbiome, and more)
  • Storage temperature (cold storage at or lower than 4℃ or hot-held at 60℃ or higher)
  • Packaging (vacuum packaging, modified atmospheric packaging, or smart packaging)
  • Shelf life (2-5 days or more than five days)
  • Hygiene of food handlers (handwash frequency, use of disposable gloves, contact with bare hands)
  • Cross-contamination (slicing of foods, utensils, mishandling of RTE foods)
  • Inefficient cold chain conditions during transport

Advancements and innovations in food and packaging technology are helping the food industry develop suitable packaging for convenience foods. Some of the key considerations while designing a packaging material for such foods to ensure food safety include the product's characteristics, type, composition, fat, moisture, flavor, protein, shape (smooth, irregular, edges), nature (sticky, crisp, brittle) and factors affecting the packaging.

Retort packaging- The hero of convenience food packaging

Retorting is a sterilization process that destroys harmful microorganisms in food by sealing them and exposing them to high temperatures to extend the product's shelf life. This technique allows RTE foods to be stored safely in retort pouches on the market shelves and at room temperature. Some key features that these retort pouches depict are

  • Puncture resistance
  • Toughness
  • Ability to withstand rough handling- Bag fall and pinhole resistance
  • High seal strength
  • Good barrier properties
  • Aroma preservation

The food packed in these retort pouches should be free from preservatives, have good nutritional value, and taste good and appeal to consumers in terms of appearance, texture, and smell. Consumers also examine reasonable pricing and suitability for the intended purpose before making a purchase decision.

Packaging of RTE foods

Flexible packaging is generally used to make ready-to-eat retort pouches. These flexible packages are made of heat-resistant plastic to allow them to be processed for retorting at 121℃. They are made from multi-layered plastic films and may or may not contain aluminum foil in between the layers.

In India, RTE food pouches are generally made from 3-ply laminate consisting of PET (polyethylene terephthalate)/Al foil/PP (polypropylene) and have a shelf life of one year. Other materials may be silica-coated nylon, PVDC (polyvinylidene chloride), EVOH (ethylene vinyl alcohol), and nylon. They have high moisture barrier properties and are used to pack high-moisture Indian food. The pouches may be pre-formed (flat or stand-up type) or formed using FFS (form-fill-seal) machines.

Packaging of RTC foods

MVTR (moisture vapor transmission rate) of the packaging material is an important factor in packaging RTC foods. This is because low-moisture foods tend to absorb moisture from the air and turn soggy, while medium and high-moisture foods breathe out moisture that can condense on their outer surface and, if not allowed to escape, can spoil the product, leading to mold growth. Thus, these products are sterilized and packed hygienically in cans, retort pouches, or aseptic containers for extended shelf life.

Retort pouches for such food must also consider:

Nitrogen permeability - An inert atmosphere of Nitrogen is used to pack the food to protect it from moisture and oxygen. The N2 permeability of the package should be low.

Oxygen/gas permeability - It should be low because fats and other ingredients in RTC foods can oxidize, leading to off flavor, rancidity, and food discoloration. It also prevents flavor loss since essential oils and flavors are volatile.

Grease resistance - Many RTC foods have edible fats as an ingredient that might ooze out. This fat should not harm the packaging material. Cellophane, polypropylene, and polyester films are suitable for such foods.

The use of retort pouches can ensure the safety of convenience foods while also increasing their shelf life. The retort food industry is growing at a fast rate and owing to their flexibility and easy storage and handling; retort pouches are set to grow in the future.

Food safety- A collective responsibility

In the context of global world trade, a "holistic food chain approach" says that everyone involved in food production is responsible for ensuring the supply of safe and nutritious food for all. Consumers today demand that the food they purchase with their hard-earned money should be safe and risk-free. Food manufacturers must step up and optimize their packaging, production, and quality control methods to ensure this. This is possible only when they have apt knowledge of how to produce safe and good quality food and the drive to build a brand trusted by all.

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