Packaging and nutritional efficacy are rarely discussed together. However, packaging can have a dramatic impact on nutrition and safety and therefore performance and health.
As there are a variety of food products, there are an equal expansive variety of packaging types (paper, metal, plastic, cans, pouches, shrink wrap, et cetera). Each type brings solutions but can also create challenges. In pet industry history, the extension of the required shelf-life increased from 12 months to 18 to 24 months. It varies depending upon the product, the market and projected turnover. Longer shelf-life ensures pet food pipeline fill and sales, but it also creates inventory management issues.
These longer shelf-life goals are rarely seen in the human food market. I have asked many consumers what length of shelf-life would they find acceptable with their products. As expected, the idea of any food in a pantry being eighteen months old is appalling. It might be acceptable with canned foods and spices.
As a young nutritionist, I quickly learned that intake of a good nutritional formula was not always ensured as the ingredients and process could create tastes that did not encourage intake.
All the right nutrition is useless unless the pet eats it. With understanding of palatability, some of these hurdles were overcome. However, what I did not expect was the packaging could emit chemicals into the food that would taint the taste and impact the acceptance. Adding coupons in plastic sleeves or adding free measuring cups could reduce palatability dramatically. I am sure many test the palatability in their chosen packaging, but I am almost assured that many do not.
Changes in nutritional content
Even with the best packaging, nutritional content will change over time. Let us consider vitamin content. In processing, 30% to 50% of many vitamins can be lost, but over time these losses continue in the package.
The longer the shelf-life, the more loss. These losses have to be predicted in the beginning to deliver good nutrition throughout the shelf-life. Over time, fatsand oils are targets to oxygen and without great protection by antioxidants, fatty acid content is reduced while negative rancidity compounds increase. This can lead to an unwholesome and strong-smelling, nutritionally-suspect food.
When soft-moist foods were first launched in a hamburger and mixed meat consistency, the water and meat content was highly attractive to insects. The typical plastic wrap was not enough to stop entry and a second over-wrap was necessary. Without the right packaging, these soft morsels turned into mite heaven.
How can packaging help nutrition?
Packaging must create a barrier against harm. More specifically, packaging must ensure safety and nutritional efficacy. How?
Reducing the amount of oxygen
This can be accomplished through minimizing the headspace and then flushing with nitrogen to remove oxygen. The elimination of oxygen reduces the potential of fat rancidity. This does not completely stop the loss of vitamins.
Complete removal of oxygen in meat systems does extend shelf-life and reduce bacterial growth. Complete removal of oxygen in dry kibble products has been marketed in brick-like format, but these packages are challenged with pin-holes allowing oxygen penetration. Additionally, these packages have no ‘give’ and can be a hazard at high weights. Popular dry meat snacks may need oxygen absorber packets to scavenge any oxygen in the package.
Reducing any access to insects
Some packaging prevents the potential of penetration. If insects do enter, they eat the very nutrition being delivered to the pets leaving webs, waste and insect protein for the pet. As an example, poly-woven packaging is durable and attractive, but it is sewn shut. Sewing holes in the package allow insects to enter forcing even tighter warehouse and retail controls to limit risk.
Controlling moisture penetration
Of course, this must mean that moisture was first controlled well in the process. Mold and bacteria cannot be fully eliminated as they continue to grow (slowly) at low water activity. Depending upon the target water activity and texture, the microbial control system employed must be changed to best protect the food’s safety and nutrition. Bacteria and molds grow off the same nutrients being delivered to the pets thus reducing the nutrients in the food. Losses of many nutrients can occur at low moisture levels where molds are slow growing.
Packaging and products must withstand high heat
As temperatures rise in warehouses and in trucks in locations with high temperatures, the packaging must not be a further challenge to sweating or chemical release.
Dry kibbles shipped at high moisture content can lead to internal sweating in the packaging during shipments in hot, humid environments. If moisture concentrates or transfers in the package, the likelihood of mold and mold toxins rise. Dry kibble shipped into high humidity locations can act as a sponge to capture moisture thus creating potential microbial growth. Packaging must support the elimination of that possibility. High heat also liquifies fats and oils allowing them to ‘seep’ out of sewn packaging.
Warehousing must be controlled
Proper turnover of foods, insect prevention, microbial reduction plans and good ventilation help deliver the nutrition designed. Rooms may have dead-zones with poor turnover creating hotspots further impacting nutritional viability. Warehouses should be designed for the packaging used.
Packaging does have an impact and it must be designed properly to meet the nutritional product to support safe, nutritious performance.
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