High-tech packaging means less food waste

New types of packaging can extend the shelf life of produce, helping to combat food waste. Wageningen University & Research is one of the bodies worldwide testing prototypes to see what works best.

How can we reduce food waste through packaging? It’s a question research centers around the world are focused on. The answer is not straightforward, says Dr. Jenneke Heising, who specializes in smart packaging that monitors food quality.

Different packaging materials affect the quality of food differently, she explains. “At Wageningen we are conducting research into new solutions with extra features, like active and intelligent packaging.”

A colored dot indicates the ripeness of the fruit

Active packaging: extra protection

Heising: “Active packaging protects food by reducing negative factors. For example, oxygen in the air affects the quality of many products. You can embed oxygen scavengers into the packaging material. These scavengers ensure the oxygen level inside the package drops so that very little oxygen (or even none at all) reacts with the product, extending its shelf life.”

Active packaging can also react to ethylene gas, slowing the ripening process of vegetables and fruit, says Heising. “Other kinds of active packaging help to regulate the level of moisture or other gasses, and you can also do things with the temperature to ensure a longer shelf life.”

Fewer preservatives needed

A lot of research is now focusing on antimicrobial packaging, says Heising. “This involves using antimicrobial materials or integrating antimicrobial components into packaging materials to curb bacterial growth. It’s particularly useful for fresh produce with a short shelf life. An added benefit is that the food needs fewer or even no preservatives.”

“We can regulate moisture and gasses thanks to active packaging”

- Dr. Jenneke Heising, Wageningen University

Intelligent packaging gauges quality

Intelligent packaging meanwhile can include built-in sensors or indicators that instantly gauge the quality of a product. “You can gauge the conditions that strongly influence the quality of a product, like the temperature,” explains Heising. “With some products, you can predict the shelf life by measuring the temperature history with a so-called TTI time-temperature indicator. This indicates temperature exposure over a certain period of time.”

“Intelligent packaging can indicate a product’s actual shelf life”

- Dr. Jenneke Heising, Wageningen University

Dynamic shelf life

Heising: “In this way, intelligent packaging can communicate far more than traditional wrapping: instead of a simple, printed expiry date, it will show the actual freshness of the product in real time. This allows for better logistical decisions to be taken at various levels of the supply chain in order to prevent food waste.”

Wageningen University is currently conducting research into intelligent packaging and dynamic pricing. “Dynamic pricing is a way of convincing supermarket consumers to buy products with a shorter shelf life for a lower price, further reducing food waste.”