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Slate

June 11, 2012

Slate: 'Smart' food packaging

Packaging buffs love to talk about popcorn, which they say proves the notion that a product's success can depend on how it's wrapped and boxed. Stove-popped popcorn was on the decline when the brand Act II hit grocery stores in 1984, promising buyers a tidy bag of kernels that would inflate in their microwaves. Relieved of the hardship of tinkering with the stove, Americans witnessed a popcorn renaissance. Sales soared even though the product — a handful of brown seeds — didn't change.

We're already fairly good at encasing products in ways that protect them from the outside environment. A food's wrapping can also communicate important facts (nutrition information, potential allergens) and attract attention with bright colors.

But only recently have we begun to tap into packaging's potential to make our lives easier: to make food last longer or taste better, for instance, or to alert us when an ingredient goes bad. Experts think the packaging of the future will not just serve as a barrier, but also interact with the contained substance to somehow improve the consumer experience.

In an age of nanotechnology, that might look like a tag that changes color to indicate the freshness of seafood, a vegetable bag that soaks up oxygen to keep the contents from rotting when the temperature rises, or a beer label that turns frosty blue when the liquid gets cold enough to drink. It could mean enfolding an enzyme into the lining of milk cartons to break down lactose for the lactose-intolerant or lacing plastic wrap with carbon dioxide molecules to prolong freshness. It could even mean developing packaging materials that prey on certain microorganisms associated with food decay.

There are two classes of new packaging: "smart" and "active." Active packaging describes any material that does more than passively contain and protect food. Some active packaging has been around for a while: Many foods come with a little packet of silica gel, a desiccant that inhibits mold growth by absorbing oxygen. Members of the military are all too familiar with self-heating MREs, which rely on exothermic chemical reactions to warm dishes like cheese tortellini and beef stew. Some supermarkets today even use breathable films that adjust their oxygen permeability based on storage conditions.

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