Farm-to-Table Food? Keep it Fresh with Flexible Packaging

May 3, 2017 | By Ray Carroll

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As a 36-year veteran of the food industry with a master’s degree in food process engineering, it really irks me when people vilify “processed foods.”

It is as incorrect as most other generalizations. People have been “processing” foods since the beginning of time, which met the challenge of preserving that food. Today, flexible packaging also helps fill that need alongside food processing.

When the hunters killed a beast, they soon learned that they could not eat the entire entrée in one sitting before it began to spoil. They learned to increase the “shelf life” of the meat by preserving it with salt and spices. They also learned to cook the meat, which made it easier to eat, reduced spoilage and made it tastier. The gatherers learned to process grains into bread and beer, fruit into preserves, and they treated vegetables similarly to meat to preserve their abundant harvests. There’s no question that food processing has been an important advancement to civilization. It has made our food safer, easier to transport and store, more convenient, and less perishable. It has also reduced the cost.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for purchasing fresh foods, not only for health reasons, but also to support producers in the local economy. I also grant you there are processed foods that are unhealthy. Artificial flavors and colors and chemical preservatives may be harmful, and formulated foods with too much sugar or fat deserve to be vilified. But I also believe that there is an opportunity to use “processes” to maximize the health benefits of food. Novel thermal technologies, combined with flexible packaging, can bring the quality of shelf stable foods closer to fresh.

Fresher Foods are Growing

There is a growing trend of fresher foods offered in grocery stores and served in restaurants. This trend goes by different names, whether we label the food as “organic” or serve it “farm to table.” Whatever name we give these practices, I call them all opportunities for flexible packaging, particularly in the production of shelf-stable foods. Here’s why.

I grant there are processed foods that are unhealthy, but thermal technologies, combined with flexible packaging, can shelf stable foods closer to fresh.

The farm-to-table movement is welcome because it can result in food that is healthier and tastier. After all, the logic goes, it can be picked right before you eat it, and the food hasn’t spoiled in transit. But the theory of the case may not be true in actual practice. According to a variety of sources, two of every five fruits and vegetables are potentially unusable by the time they reach store shelves in many locations. This is due to chemical reactions that begin to occur as soon as the produce is picked. (Yes, food is made up of chemicals just like every living and nonliving thing on this planet.) Changes in temperature accelerate these reactions by giving microorganisms a chance to spoil the food.

I grant there are processed foods that are unhealthy, but thermal technologies, combined with flexible packaging, can make shelf stable foods closer to fresh.

Additionally, approximately one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year, about 1.3 billion tons, is wasted according to the Food & Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. That equates to $1 trillion USD in wasted money and 3.3 billion extra tons of carbon dioxide when the food decomposes, adding to greenhouse gas.

Some Disadvantages in Local Farming

There are a few minor disadvantages to eating local foods, counterintuitive as this may be. One is a potential lack of availability of certain fruits and vegetables in your community. What happens if you are not near a blueberry producer, or your favorite strawberries are out of season in our hemisphere? Furthermore, some natural foods may have higher bacterial counts because of lack of preservation.

Over the years, we have experienced the progressive development of food preservation techniques. They include canning, pickling, freezing, vacuum sealing, pasteurization, bottling and others. I am amazed at how many people believe that canned foods contain preservatives. In fact, the food is preserved by deactivating microorganisms with heat, not chemical preservatives. Some canned foods are high in sodium, but that is added for taste, not preservation. Consumers can shop for low sodium offerings.

So now that we are once again promoting fresh foods on our menus and in our diets — a most welcome trend — let’s also accept the availability of shelf stable foods, which are made possible through aseptic or retort processing and kept fresh with professionally designed flexible packaging. Consumers shop the perimeter of the store for fresh foods. But a producer can package foods to be shelf stable and store them in the refrigerated section as well. Such opportunities don’t limit our access to fresh foods; ultimately they expand them.

Ray Carroll

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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