When you think of items in your house that are considered "smart," you might not immediately think of the humble packages lining the shelves of your pantry or refrigerator; after all, the most basic function of packaging is merely to protect food.
But in reality, packaging could do so much more. In fact, astonishing innovations in packaging not only help keep food fresher but will also allow brands, in the future, to better manage their supply chains and communicate with their customers.
"Packaging has always been 'smart,' just by the nature of how it preserves food quality and safety," said Pedro Gonçalves, vice president of marketing for Tetra Pak U.S. and Canada. "But it will evolve to connect many of the nodes on the value chain, making it crucial for flexibility, quality control and stock control, and even more important to brand managers, for creating connections with consumers."
Key functions of smart packaging
Here are some ways that smart innovations transform packaging today, and what advances we are likely to see in the near future:
Traceability is most widely associated with recalls because it identifies exactly which product is in question. However, there are other important factors related to traceability, such as the ability to improve logistics in the value chain by tracking where a package is at each specific moment. And, in the future, it may offer additional opportunities. For example, from a sustainability perspective, this could mean tracing the "end of life" characteristics of a package to learn details on whether it was recycled and where.
2. Preventing food waste.
While one of the main benefits of proper packaging is preventing food waste by keeping food fresh, smart packaging can go one step further. For example, a store system can track packaging dates and launch a promotion to encourage a fast sale if an item is nearing the end of its shelf life. And as more refrigerators and freezers become connected, packaging will be able to connect with the appliance via an algorithm that recognizes a code or image and can relay when an item was bought or opened, so a consumer knows what to eat or cook first while it is still fresh.
3. Enhancing consumer experience.
Smart packaging will enable brands to move from one-way to two-way communication for stronger connections, Gonçalves explained. And while smart packaging can be a vehicle for providing expanded nutritional information and recipes, it can do much more than that.
In the near future, packaging will be able to transfer information to wearables, e.g., health monitors, that can help consumers better manage their diet and other lifestyle factors. "Today's consumers are much more informed, and traditional advertising is becoming less effective," Gonçalves said. "Brands want to become more granular in understanding their customers — where they consume and why they consume — and then give the consumer the chance to communicate back to the brand. The package can be the main portal for that."
What's new in smart packaging?
While smart packaging is already playing a large role in connecting consumers and improving the brand experience, a number of advances promise to make packaging even more compelling. For example, using smart packaging to determine end-of-life characteristics can help uncover increased sustainability options. "It can allow brand managers to identify if their packaging is being aggressively recycled and launch a conversation to help educate consumers on how to recycle better if need be," Gonçalves said. In addition, knowing more about recycling behavior can help inform potential improvements in recycling facilities and justify their expenditures.
And, to allow brands to better connect with their customers, Tetra Pak will be introducing full-color digital printing on its carton packages, which will open up new opportunities for flexibility in product customization.
A rich heritage in innovation
Tetra Pak's desire to be at the forefront of packaging innovation is no surprise, given its heritage. From its origins in Sweden in 1951, it pioneered aseptic packaging and a filling process that allowed food to be shelf-stable for a long period of time without the need for preservatives. That revolutionized how products such as milk could be distributed, particularly to regions with limited refrigeration, helping to ensure access to healthy nutrition for everyone.
That quest for innovation continues today. "Other industries have mastered the concept of 'smart,' and I believe food is the last frontier," Gonçalves said. "Tetra Pak is committed to becoming future-ready through technology investments, with a goal of being connected to whatever system or platform a brand uses."
Want to continue the conversation? Food Dive's Brand Studio and Tetra Pak have launched a podcast series on "Unpacking Food Tech." Stay tuned for our final episode, in which we will dive deeper into smarter packaging — where we are now and what you can expect in the future for the food and beverage industry. Don't want to wait? Catch our first episode, in which two experts shared some of the common myths plaguing the food industry regarding packaging sustainability, and our second episode, in which we explored how technology innovations are revolutionizing how packages are manufactured and real-life use cases into its benefits.