Food researchers face numerous challenges when trying to develop a product that retains its quality during its shelf life. The difficulty of directly controlling the environments a product experiences once it's in the distribution channel is something that has yet to be fully achieved. Shelf life is determined not only by a food's chemical nature, but also by the way it has been processed, packaged, distributed and stored.
For example, products may lose their nutritive value and undergo subtle chemical and physical changes during long-term storage, even if they do not spoil. A major problem that products experience involves fluctuating or inadequate temperatures during their storage.
Adjusting product formulations to obtain the optimum shelf life will always remain a challenge. However, a number of technical advances have emerged in recent years that will help us improve the storage life of products. Market analyst Food Technology Intelligence has published a new report highlighting many of these developments.
The report, entitled Advances in Shelf Life Technology for the Food Industry, analyses many shelf life optimisation and extension techniques. The report focuses on technologies critical to product development and market success. It offers manufacturers the opportunity to learn more about several shelf life optimisation techniques that have been developed at universities, companies and government research labs worldwide.
For example, a calcium treatment that extends the shelf life of melons and a method to control tomato hormone levels to optimise their life expectancy are discussed in the report.Combining nissin and reduced pH to improve the shelf life of ultrapasteurised liquid whole eggs is also covered.
Some of these processes are still under development but have commercial potential. Others have completed development and are waiting to be licensed or transferred to industry by collaborating with the developers. Oxygen-free packaging that can increases shelf life by 50 per cent is now on the market, but new advances are being made all the time.
For example, a research project in Finland is working on an innovative inkjet printable indicator, which contains a reactive substance that signals if oxygen is present in a package. The sensor can be printed onto plastic materials to identify package leakage and indicates the presence of oxygen in perishable foods that have been packaged in a modified atmosphere.
The company behind the project, VTT, is attempting to incorporate a number of active and intelligent technologies into one package as part of the project. The initiative is exploring the potential of digital printing methods, novel diagnostic printing inks, coding systems and information networks, for these packs. The packages will be able to communicate their location wirelessly and have an integrated anti-counterfeiting feature.
In addition, a nano-composite coating process to improve food packaging is being developed. This innovation, which is designed to interact with food to reduce oxygen levels or add flavourings and preservatives, makes anti-microbial packaging materials one of the most promising active food packaging applications.
The problem has been that few commercial products exist today because it is difficult to produce a safe and effective packaging material at reasonable cost. In the future, however, anti-microbial agents could be incorporated straight into the packaging film. The Solplas project, a consortium of technical institutes and European technology firms including Philips and Ferrania, is attempting to stimulate this trend by placing anti-microbial agents directly on the surface of coated film.
This innovation could put European companies ahead in this exciting market. "The output of the project should be high-performance barrier coatings for food and display applications," says project co-ordinator Dr Sabine Paulussen of Vito, the Flemish institute for technological research in Belgium.
Some long-life innovations are now on the market. Constar International, a leading producer of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic containers, has successfully packaged Smirnoff Ice in high performance Starshield barrier PET bottles. The company claims that the material extends the shelf life of the drink, which is manufactured and marketed by drinks giant Diageo.
Other technologies covered in the report include fungal amylases that can extend the shelf life of tortillas and ultralow blanching that increases the firmness of canned vegetables and maintains their shelf life.
For details of how to order your copy of this report, click here.