Benefits of Shifting to Flexible Pouches in Retort Processing

April 17, 2017 | By Ray Carroll

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Over my career in the food industry, the transition to flexible pouches from cans in retort processing has been one of the most significant developments I have ever seen. I believe the benefits are quite definite, as listed below.

Flexible Packaging Has Brought Economic Benefits to Food Producers

The overall cost of processing food on a retort pouch line versus a canning line is lower. While there is an initial capital expenditure to procure and install retort pouch packaging and processing equipment, the operating costs can be less than that of a canning system. If the existing retorts are not continuous systems specifically designed for cans, they can be used for pouches. In that case, the capital investment is minimal.

The cost of freight for both empty containers and finished product is lower because of the lighter weight and reduced volume of pouches compared to cans. The cans need to be shipped to the processing plant on pallets, while pouches are flattened and case packed, or better yet, with form-fill-seal machines shipped as roll stock minimizing shipping volume. There are also energy savings and gains in productivity due to shorter process times.

It’s Resulted in Shorter Processing Time and Less Thermal Degradation

Due to the geometry of retort pouches, heat penetration to the cold spot occurs faster. Retort cook time is significantly decreased, resulting in the product maintaining its flavor, texture, and most important, its nutritional value. The extended time required for heat to reach the center of a #10 can often results in burning of the product at the can walls.

It’s Created Smaller Footprints

The most up-to-date vertical form-fill-seal equipment for batch retorting has a much smaller footprint than traditional can lines. A typical VFFS machine will take up an area smaller than 10 by 12 feet. If the product requires two-phase fill (i.e., liquid and solid particulates), the solids filler is mounted atop the filling machine.

On the other hand, a canning line is more complicated; it requires a can depalletizer, a filling machine (or two machines for a two-phase fill), and a closing machine, with many feet of conveyors between each. It may also require an accumulation table. Real estate is at a premium in food manufacturing plants, so if more production can be attained without new bricks and mortar, that is a huge benefit.

Flexible Packaging Has Enabled Customer and Consumer Preference

In the food service industry, the producer is manufacturing and selling product to their customers, which includes eating establishments, such as restaurants or cafeterias. The producer needs to meet the expectations of both the owners of those establishments and the end consumers of the product — the restaurants’ guests. As mentioned above, the shorter process times for producing food products in retort pouches result in superior taste, texture and nutritional value. This pleases the end consumer and, in turn, the restaurant owner.

The customer, however, receives additional benefits from retort pouches. Product takes up less space in the kitchen than it does in cans. The package is also easier and safer to handle and open, resulting in fewer injuries to employees. When empty, the pouch is easier to dispose of, and it takes up less space in the trash receptacle.

I have been blessed with a long career that has been spent mostly in thermally processed foods, including both food processors and equipment suppliers. I am confident that this perspective also gives me insight into the needs and preferences of the end consumers. All of this evidence leads me to the conclusion that the needs of many stakeholders in the retort food services industry are better met with flexible pouches than cans. Some products lend themselves to transitioning from retort cans to aseptic pouches which can provide further benefits to product quality and manufacturing considerations, but I will leave that discussion to another day.

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Ray Carroll is a seasoned food and beverage executive with more than 35 years of experience in research & development, food process engineering, and quality. His numerous accomplishments, both domestically and globally, have included the development and implementation of new processing technologies, the creation and launch of new, unique products, management of pilot plant operations, and food safety.

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