33 Choosing Packaging for Your Product

Consider your food’s characteristics and what function(s) packaging needs to provide. Packaging functionality is diverse, but typically includes:

  • Containment (holds the food)
  • Protects the food (quality, safety, freshness)
  • Maintains or extends product shelf life
  • Communicates and markets information through the label
  • Provides convenience or utility for the consumer

Food Packaging Range

  • Includes everything from bulk packaging
    • Railcars and trucks
    • 2000 pound totes
    • 50-pound bags
  • To retail packaging (like you see in the grocery store)
  • To foodservice packaging
    • Take Out boxes
    • Bakery bags

Types of Packaging

  • Primary – has direct contact with the food
    • Bottle, can, bag, etc.
  • Secondary – contains multiple primary packages
    • Corrugated boxes, cases, stretch wrap
  • Tertiary – bundling of secondary containers to allow easy transportation and distribution
    • Often stacked on a pallet and stretch wrapped

Packaging Materials

  • Metal (and foil)
  • Glass
  • Paper and Paperboard
  • Corrugated boxes (aka cardboard boxes)
  • Plastics
  • Wood crates

Packaging Materials Chosen Based on:

  • Cost
  • Packaging equipment in place
  • Product compatibility
  • Processing requirements
  • Shelf life desired
  • Packaging materials used need to be easy to fill (line speeds help determine cost)
    • All packaged food has identification included so it can be tracked (typically with a lot code and/or “best if used by” date)

Metal: Steel and Aluminum

  • Used in cans and trays
  • Able to form a hermetic seal, which is good for canning
  • Steel
    • Has a non-corrosive coating of either tin, chromium, or aluminum on the inside
    • Manufactured into three-piece cans or two-piece cans
  • Aluminum
    • Easily formed into cans with hermetic seals
    • Lighter weight than steel
    • Resists corrosion
    • Used in trays and aluminum foil
    • Aluminum foil provides an oxygen and light barrier


  • Derived from silicon dioxide (sand)
  • Used in forming bottles and jars
  • Can form hermetic seals, which makes glass good for canning
  • Disadvantage:
    • Glass needs to be thick enough to prevent breakage without being too heavy
    • Coatings can be applied to minimize damaging nicks and scratches
  • Advantage:
    • 100% Recyclable


  • Derived from the pulp of wood
  • Includes additives for strength and barrier protection
  • Generally recycled as long as the paper is not contaminated
  • Pizza boxes have a wax coating
    • Makes the paper hard to recycle
    • Grease from the pizza is also a problem
  • Thickness and layers of paper vary
    • Paper – thin and one layer
    • Paperboard – thicker, but still one layer
    • Corrugated paperboard – multiple layers of paperboard, often referred to as cardboard


  • Six basic types of plastics
  • Chosen by characteristics that are needed:
    • Flexible and stretchable
    • Lightweight
    • Low-temperature formability (especially compared to glass)
    • Resistant to breakage
    • Strong heat sealability
    • Barrier properties for moisture and oxygen
  • Not all plastics are good oxygen or gas barriers – small bottles will lose their carbonation faster than big bottles
  • Plastics are generally not good light barriers.
  • Derived from natural gas and petroleum.
  • Hydrocarbon monomers are formed into plastic polymers.
  • Recycled plastic is not used for food packaging.

Laminates and Material Combinations

  • Multilayers of aluminum foil, paper, and/or plastic films
  • Chosen to get optimal functionality from the packaging

Controlling Atmosphere Packaging

  • Generally has reduced oxygen levels
  • Modified Atmosphere Packaging is the most common.
    • Air is replaced with nitrogen or carbon dioxide.
    • Increase in shelf life possible
    • Reduces respiration of vegetables & other fresh foods.
    • Also used for meats, baked goods, coffees & teas, dairy products, and lunch kits
    • Can reduce the need for added preservatives
  • Vacuum Packaging
    • All oxygen and most of the air is removed
    • Flexible packaging with a strong oxygen barrier is used
    • Helps prevent rancidity
    • There are restrictions on what can be vacuum packaged
    • Clostridium botulinum is a concern in anaerobic (no oxygen present) conditions

Active Packaging

  • Packaging can “react” to changes in the internal environment
  • Antimicrobial films
  • Oxygen, carbon dioxide, and odor scavengers
  • Steam release films
  • Time-temperature indicators
  • Microwave susceptor films allow browning

Aseptic Packaging

  • The food and packaging are sterilized separately
  • Food is then packaged in a commercially sterile environment to produce a safe product
  • Typically shelf-stable

Safety Measures

  • Tamper-Evident Banding/Seals
  • Gives consumers security that the product has not been compromised.

Environmental Concerns

  • There has been a push to reduce packaging over the last 10-15 years.
  • Most packaging materials can be recycled, but not all are.
  • Plastic recycling is complicated – lots of plastic is not recycled and recycled plastic is typically not food-grade.

Packaging Material content adapted from Essentials of Food Science (Vaclavik et al., 2014) [1]

Choosing Your Packaging Material(s)

Focus on product packaging needs and the material characteristics to choose the packaging for your new product. Include multiple components and layers as needed. Does your product need protection from any of the following?
  • Light
  • Oxygen
  • Breakage (fragile products)

Does the packaging for your product need to provide an additional function? Examples include:

  • Microwave susceptors
  • Vacuum packaging
  • Antioxidant addition
  • Processing in package (canning, etc.)
  • Convenience (heat in the container and/or eat out of the container, single-serve)
Questions to Answer:
  • What type of packaging is used for similar products?
  • What type of packaging/filling equipment would your product require?
  • What type of packaging can your product afford? (premium products are more likely to afford glass…)

Additional Considerations:

Where will your product be located?

  • Refrigerated display case
    • Wide array of packaging options
    • Important – take fit, form, and function into account
  • Freezer/Frozen Food Cases
    • Important – look at packaging performance
  • Heated display case
    • Limited packaging options
    • Ventilation for this packaging is important
    • Think the rotisserie chicken packaging

Inventory Space reduction

  • Increase the number of units per space in order to sell more
  • Square and rectangular packaging is the most case ready
  • Allows optimization of space within a case in order to get more product in the case
  • Keeps case full and less handling by employees (where some damage come from – preventing food waste)

Decrease overall packaging costs

  • Use a less expensive material that has the same function
  • Higher price points for individual servings

  1. Vaclavik, V., Christian, E., & Campbell, T. (2014). Essentials of Food Science (4th ed.). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-46814-9


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