More Than Just A Pringles Can: The Wonderful World of Food PackagingSeptember 27, 2018
- Adee de LeonWords
Have you ever bought something simply because you liked the way it was packaged? Or perhaps you’ve been acquainted with the life-extending wonders of Tetra Pak ever since you could drink from a straw? And did your mom reuse those beautiful tin canisters that housed imported butter cookies? That’s what great packaging should be about. It should attract buyers, protect and prolong the life of precious goods, and still be of use long after its contents have been consumed.
Great design does not happen by accident. It takes a lot of research and development to create even the simplest food containers. Form and function must blend perfectly to create a beautiful package that does everything it needs to (and more).
Package Designers Laugh All the Way to the Bank
The industrial revolution changed nearly every product into a fast-moving consumer good, and the food packaging industry has been raking it in since then. It currently has an annual value of US$110 billion, and is the third-largest industry in the United States.
And with the food sector taking up 60% of this industry, companies are heavily investing in all aspects of packaging: design, ease of storage and distribution, efficiency, quality control, and safety.
Judge Me by My Cover
Back when circumcisions were conducted with guava leaves, sellers would just weigh your picks, and put them in flimsy, nondescript bags. However, the advent of grocery shops and department stores placed products and their competitors side by side. How a product looked on the outside was now just as important as what it was made of on the inside. Differentiation became key.
Nowadays, modern food packaging has become so distinct that I find it hard to pick out a drink from the convenience store chiller. Do I get the sugar-free fruit drink in that fancy glass tumbler? Or the soya milk that now comes in little bottles? And oh my God, Monster Energy is now available locally?
Unfortunately, as the packaging got prettier, the photo representations of the actual products became a lot harder to believe (especially when food styling and Photoshop entered the picture). See how all the images of pre-packaged food have the words “Serving Suggestion” on it? That’s just a clever way of saying, “Our product will never look this good in real life.”
It Tastes Great When It’s Safe!
But if you can’t trust the pictures advertised on the box, you can at least count on the package to keep the food safe for consumption. And that, without a doubt, is its most basic function. Mass-produced goods can stay in warehouses for months, so protection from contamination, physical damage, and weather changes is essential.
Great packaging is also designed with varying degrees of protection and storage needs in mind. Fruits, for instance, are usually placed in solid, padded cases to prevent them from being crushed during transport. Butter, ice cream, and other cold goods, on the other hand, need to be contained at a constant temperature. You’ll also notice that such dairy goods have casings that are easily stackable, which allows them to be stored in limited spaces. The same principle applies to canned goods, renowned throughout history as the one of the best ways to preserve food.
However, we have yet to invent something quite as revolutionary as Tetra Pak. Developed in Sweden during the 40’s, it became a world-wide hit just two decades later. Tetra Pak’s flagship product was cost-efficient, environmentally-friendly, portable, and very sanitary. Other packaging firms soon took their cues from the Swedish company’s product philosophy, and this brought about increased efficiency in the food sector.
Tetra Pak is currently the largest food packaging company in the world, and their product is used for nearly all beverages, including wine (imagine how awkward it would be if a parent mistakenly packed booze into their kid’s lunch box).
Of course, no contemporary food container is complete without an expiration date. While definitely important, they’re not always absolute. I’m not saying you should eat a rusty 5 year-old can of corned beef, but I know from experience that a few days past the best-before date (usually) won’t make you sick. And if you’re put off by the tried-and-tested method of sniffing to check for spoilage, you can just read this.
Most food packages’ labels also contain a remarkable amount of information. They give you effortless access to a product’s ingredients, nutritional facts, preparation method, recommended serving sizes, and recycling/disposal instructions. Some also come with company information, while games and trivia are popular fixtures on cereal boxes. Heck, there was even a time when milk cartons had pictures of missing children on them.
An Ugly Side Effect
However, like most modern marvels, the food packaging industry has some glaring problems. Fast food chains produce so much garbage that you could almost say they’re advertising everywhere. And without looking beyond your own home, you’re bound to find a lot of plastic waste lying around. As plastic has been found to be virtually indestructible, it appears that convenience has a steep price.
Thankfully, more people are becoming aware of this, and our government has taken some steps into reducing this wastage. However, I really wish more people would cooperate, and use their own recyclable carrying bags when grocery shopping (and ditch drinking straws while they’re at it). It would also be great if we stopped asking for plastic bags when purchasing small items, such as chewing gum or candies.
Food packaging might not be as high-profile as a lot of the cutting-edge gadgets out there, but they are undeniably one of the greatest inventions of the modern age. Where else can you find such a breathtaking convergence of advertising, engineering, ergonomics, food technology, industrial design, nutrition, and sanitation? They pose some setbacks, but hey, I haven’t heard of any technological breakthrough without such. As with all innovative discoveries, it all boils down to responsible usage.
Besides, can you really imagine having to milk a cow every time you crave for calcium? Or grinding coffee beans whenever you need your caffeine fix? I can’t either.