The task of standard packaging is to protect the transported goods against damage and weather conditions. This is a lot, but also too little when it comes to shipping food. In order to make sure food products are brought fresh to the recipient, it is necessary to ensure the appropriate temperature, humidity and chemical composition of the gases inside the packaging. But this is still not enough. You need to know what is actually happening inside the packaging and to be able to counteract adverse effects. These tasks can only be achieved with intelligent and active packaging.
While talking about shipping food, you mainly mean perishable products. These are first of all frozen food, raw meat and fish, fresh fruit and vegetables. All these products are like the famous sturgeon from Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” – fresh or spoiled. There is nothing in between, no compromises. Therefore, intelligent and active packaging is used in the transport and storage of food.
Smart packaging monitors the condition of the goods
The longer the distance, the more challenging transporting food products gets. Not only time, but temperature is crucial as well. Food will arrive in good condition if you shorten the delivery time to a minimum and lower the temperature to a level that slows down the processes of biological decomposition. These parameters are slightly different for different types of food. The role of intelligent packaging (or smart packaging) is to monitor what is happening inside a container or a specific package without the need to open it.
The kind of information you get depends on which sensors the intelligent packaging is equipped with. The most popular is temperature and time monitoring. Time Temperature Indicators (TTIs) are smart labels on packages with food products, which, by changing colour, indicate changes in temperature and the remaining shelf life of products. They can be calibrated and adapted to the specific requirements of a given type of food. For example, in the case of frozen food, the indicator may be activated when the product temperature reaches a limit value (it may be 0°C) and from that moment, the count down of shelf life begins.
Gas Indicators are also frequently used. Similarly to TTIs, they are smart labels which by changing colour indicate the presence of certain gases in the packaging. Oxygen indicators are the most commonly used: the presence of this gas indicates damage to the package sealing or insufficient removal of gases during packaging. Oxygen indicators are especially useful for products packed using the MAP (Modified Atmosphere Packaging) method, in which the gaseous atmosphere surrounding a food product inside a package is carbon dioxide or its mixture with nitrogen.
Of course, you can also check the content of carbon dioxide in the packaging, the level of moisture and the freshness of products. Biosensors are used to monitor freshness. They make it possible to recognize specific enzymes, hormones and other substances, the presence of which indicates the processes of decomposition of organic matter and the presence of microorganisms.
Active packaging absorbs or releases odours and repels insects
As the name suggests, active packaging influences the processes taking place in the transported food. The most dangerous of them is oxidation. Reaction with oxygen makes fats become rancid (autoxidation) and creates an extremely unpleasant smell as a warning. Moreover, spoiled food is not simply unpleasant to your nose, but toxic as well. Oxygen also causes the growth of aerobic bacteria, which are responsible for the reduction (decomposition) processes of complex organic compounds. The smell of rotting meat or vegetables is disgusting: it effectively eliminates food from direct consumption or further processing. Unsafe food poses a direct threat to life and health.
Active packaging can significantly counteract unfavourable processes in food. They can absorb some gases (mainly oxygen) and give off others (e.g. carbon dioxide), absorb or release odours or absorb water. Active packaging is created to repel insects or provide essential nutrients (used for the transport of cut flowers).
The benefits of intelligent pack(ag)ing
Intelligent and active packaging supports the maintenance of the cold chain and, as a result, reduces food waste. Maintaining the freshness of food products also contributes to a reduction in the number of gastrointestinal diseases, poisoning and other health complications caused by the consumption of unsafe food.
Finally, although food constitutes the lion’s share of goods transported in intelligent and active packaging, medicines also require it. Many medical supplies (including insulin, vaccines and some antibiotics) require storage at low, strictly controlled temperatures. Smart packaging allows you to meet stringent requirements and monitor the conditions inside the packaging.