Overlook traditional packaging techniques that aim to simplify food & beverage distribution! Modern science is here to assist us. It has introduced ‘active packaging.’ The term ‘active packaging’ was coined to describe all forms of packaging that alter the conditions of packed foods/drinks to extend their shelf life, enhance their sensory properties, & retain their quality.
While conventional packaging protects food (to some extent) from external surroundings, ‘active packaging’ does that & much more! The latter actually uses subsidiary components that are deliberately added to packaging materials or headspace for improving ‘package’ performance.
Emphasis on safe & superior food with minimal additives & preservatives is the key driver of active packaging systems. One of the many applications of active packaging systems is ‘antimicrobial packaging.’
Antimicrobial packaging kills pathogens that contaminate foods & beverages. This application involves the ‘controlled release’ of antimicrobial agents in packaging materials. If left alone, pathogens adversely affect the color, texture, & nutritive value of these food/beverage products; eventually making them non-edible.
Antimicrobial packaging commonly works by:
- Immobilizing antimicrobials in polymers using covalent or ion linkages
- Adopting ‘inherently-antimicrobial’ polymers
- Coating polymer surfaces with antimicrobials
- Directly incorporating volatile & non-volatile antimicrobials in polymers
Adding pads/sachets (having volatile antimicrobial agents) to packages
Although used predominantly in food & beverage applications, antimicrobial packaging also attracts personal care & healthcare sectors. In healthcare, it safeguards medical devices, plastic products, and tablets from bacteria & fungi.
Antimicrobial preservatives (cresol, phenol, parabens, bronopol) are also added to pharmaceutical products. Grand View Research, Inc. projects a bright future for the global antimicrobial packaging market.
- Carton packages, pouches, trays, bags, lids, and cups are the main packaging types. Pouches rule the roost, with wide adoption across different industries. They are likely to dominate in the coming years.
- Asia Pacific was the largest regional consumer in 2015. It should witness the fastest growth till 2024.
- Plastics have been the most preferred ‘base’ material. However, biopolymers are quickly replacing synthetic materials.
- Regulations - They will greatly affect antimicrobial packaging systems. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) enlists ‘GRAS’ (Generally Recognized as Safe) & such materials based on toxicology.
- Research - There is a need to close the gap between effectiveness of antimicrobial packaging in laboratories vis-a-vis the real world. Real-time food systems are more complex where storage conditions, salt content, water activity, & some other factors impact the ‘release rate’ of antimicrobial agents. This calls for extensive research.
- Scalability - Most vendors (except DoW Chemicals & BASF) have under-utilized production capacities. Manufacturing costs would reduce only when economies of scale are achieved.
Antimicrobial packaging is on the verge of revolutionizing the ‘packaging industry.’ Its true potential can be realized through collaborative endeavors from the fields of food technology, material science, engineering, & microbiology.
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