Clarification: A previous version of this story mischaracterized Harmless Harvest's use of aseptic systems.
Coconut water manufacturer Harmless Harvest uses a proprietary multi-step microfiltration system to make its products taste like a freshly cracked coconut, CEO Giannella Alvarez told Food Dive.
Preserving that flavor, as well as maintaining the product's quality and safety, was important to the company. Alvarez said the company doesn't feel that cooking and boiling the product—normal steps in conventional beverage packaging processes—were necessary. So the company switched to using aseptic filling.
Aseptic filling and packaging, a method which uses several state-of-the-art sterilization processes to lengthen product shelf-life and safely preserve it with fewer additives, is on the rise for all sorts of products. Like coconut water, the packaging innovation has been embraced so far by similar dairy-based beverages and foods with particulates.
A report released earlier this year from The Freedonia Group estimates U.S. demand for aseptic packaging to reach $6.4 billion in 2020, growing at about 6.8% annually, with annual unit gains of 3.7% to about 68.5 million. Global demand for aseptic packaging could reach $80.49 billion by 2024 from an opportunity of $34.42 billion in 2015, growing at an estimated CAGR of 9.9%, according to a recent report from Transparency Market Research.
Pharmaceuticals remain the largest market for aseptic packaging, accounting for 61% of total U.S. demand in 2015, according to The Freedonia Group’s report. But food and beverage use is becoming more common.
The benefits of aseptic packaging
Aseptic packaging allows food manufacturers to meet consumer demands for safe products and simple ingredients. Manufacturers use a specialized process to sterilize contents and container separately. Then they are combined in a sterile environment to prevent contamination by microorganisms, according to Esther Palevsky, senior industry analyst of packaging at The Freedonia Group.
The benefits of aseptic packaging for manufacturers run the gamut:
Shelf stability at ambient temperatures
By allowing manufacturers to ship and store a wide range of products at ambient temperatures without requiring refrigeration, aseptic packaging extends the potential for manufacturers’ customer bases. This includes retailers and foodservice entities that don’t have enough refrigerated storage space, as well as customers located farther across the country or internationally that require more time for shipping.
Extends shelf life
The aseptic packaging process allows manufacturers to extend the shelf life of their products without refrigeration for an estimated six to 12 months. This could mean a reduction in food waste at the retailer and consumer levels. Manufacturers have more time to ship and sell their products before they expire or lose flavor, texture or health benefits.
No preservatives needed
Unlike many other processing and packaging methods, aseptic packaging doesn’t require the use of preservatives. Manufacturers can offer products with the clean, simple ingredients lists consumers demand while meeting their own needs for shipping and storage of the products to retailers and foodservice customers.
"One trend that’s driving big changes in product formulation—and therefore, packaging—is the trend toward clean labels," said Larine Urbina, communications manager for Tetra Pak U.S. and Canada. "As consumers increasingly scrutinize products’ ingredients lists, we see a growing demand for beverages without added chemicals or preservatives. Aseptic cartons are an especially good fit here."
Gentler, shorter processing
Aseptic packaging involves a gentler processing method at lower temperatures, particularly when compared to hot fill and retort processing. Gentler processing can protect the quality of ingredients’ flavors, textures, appearance and health benefits, which could be lost in hotter processing methods. The processing time itself is also often shorter, which speeds manufacturers’ ability to bring products to market.
Lighter weight and compact
Because it tends to be lighter and more compact, aseptic packaging can reduce shipping costs and increase transportation and stocking efficiencies, according to Urbina. Palevsky said aseptic packaging is taking share particularly from No. 10 metal cans.
Using aseptic packaging and processing can also contribute to manufacturers’ sustainability efforts by being more environmentally friendly. Transparency Market Research found that aseptic packaging products are safer alternatives to conventional packaging made from glass and PET. Aseptic packaging can also save on energy use and costs by enabling ambient rather than refrigerated shipping, Urbina said.
This was one of the driving factors of Harmless Harvest’s decision to use an aseptic filling system for its coconut water, which enabled the company to reduce the amount of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in its bottles by about one-quarter.
With so many benefits, what’s holding back demand for aseptic packaging?
Higher costs for the equipment, materials and labor needed for the complex sterilization process have stymied aseptic packaging adoption. But the economic barrier might not always be there.
"To avoid capital investment, brands can take advantage of the robust co-packing network here in the U.S. by using established manufacturing facilities," Urbina said. "At the same time, they get access to the co-packer’s operational expertise. Today, there is a well-established network of low acid and high acid co-packers with Tetra Pak processing and packaging equipment, helping fuel product innovation in the market."
Aseptic packaging also tends to be more technically involved and requires a higher level of sterilization for the product, equipment and labor.
“It’s more complex and requires a hermetically sealed ultra-clean environment,” said Palevsky. “Operators must be trained in specific routines and wear special clothing, such as head, face, hand and arm coverage.”
However, FSMA compliance requirements are taking effect next month for larger manufacturers, and over the following two years for smaller companies. This could encourage more manufacturers to adopt aseptic packaging within their operations as a way to meet FSMA demands and avoid the rising costs of recalls.
But sometimes manufacturers just aren’t ready to make such major changes to their operations.
“Overall in most of the beverages, they tend to use hot-fill packaging,” said Palevsky. “It has a well-established base. The companies who make the beverages, that’s the equipment they have. And it’s just still dominant, and there’s a reluctance to change equipment.”
How to benefit from aseptic packaging
Aseptic packaging for food and beverage comes in two categories: high acid and low acid, Palevsky said. High-acid products include fruit beverages and processed fruits and vegetables, while low-acid products often consist of dairy-based beverages or RTD beverages without fruit juice.
Fruit-based beverages, such as cartons of kids’ juice drinks, are a major application for aseptic packaging. But dairy-based beverages—ranging from conventional milk-based drinks and protein shakes to non-dairy milk alternatives, such as almond and soy milk—are also using it. RTD tea and iced coffee, flavored waters, and cocktail and bar mixes could also benefit from aseptic packaging.
"While tea is naturally a low-acid beverage, most of it is produced in high-acid hot-fill plants, requiring manufacturers to make significant modifications to the 'tea leaves plus hot water' product," said Urbina. "Producers can avoid adding acid—and sweeteners to balance the flavor—by using aseptic cartons. The result is a delicate, high-quality tea with a very short list of ingredients: tea and water."
This type of packaging may also serve the growing demand for liquid meal replacements, including smoothies and breakfast drinks. Shelf stability enables retailers and consumers to store the product longer and more easily until they’re ready to sell or consume it, while providing the added convenience of being able to drink a meal’s worth of nutrients on the go.
Broth and soup, particularly those with particulates, are among the most common food applications for aseptic packaging. As consumers demand more nutrient-filled foods, manufacturers create more processed vegetable products. The high-acid, tomato-based products such as diced tomatoes and sauces could especially benefit from aseptic packaging.
On the more indulgent side, Palevsky said puddings, particularly those often found next to fruit cocktails in grocery stores, are using more aseptic packaging.
Because companies use aseptic packaging for both medical and food and beverage purposes, the packaging process holds promise for the medical foods industry, which has attracted investments from major manufacturers like Nestle and Hormel.