What is the Next Big Thing in Food Technology?

If you want a peek at the emerging trends in any industry, you can look at how consumers shift their spending habits. In the food industry, products with safe and eco-friendly packaging have become a customer preference. The War on Plastics will not subside anytime soon, and Plastic Free July is becoming a year-long event. 

The technology side of the food industry has doubled efforts to meet consumer preferences. Plastic-free and smart packaging are available now, with more options to come in 2024. Here is an overview of these innovations and how they’re shaping hiring trends in the food industry.

Plastic-Free Packaging Becomes Top Priority

Consumer backlash against plastic packaging originated with concerns over “forever chemicals” like polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS is associated with pesticides and harsh chemical cleaners but is not explicitly meant for food packaging. However, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic containers have tested positive for the presence of PFAS.

That means that HDPE-based packaging not only has negative environmental implications but there are also concerns that PFAS could be making its way into packaged food. California, Maine, and New York were among the first states to enact PFAS bans for consumer products, and other states are expected to follow suit. That’s left the food industry scrambling to develop safe and practical alternatives.

The challenge facing the food industry and their packaging designers is replacing plastic’s durability and cost-effectiveness. Plastic became a standard because of its durability. Food packaging, in particular, must withstand the demands of freezers, microwaves, conventional ovens, and more extreme conditions. How can sustainable, paper-based packaging compete against that?

The answer is PFAS-free chemical coatings for paper and paperboard packages. This strengthens sustainable packaging, providing a solution that meets customer demands without compromising the convenience they’ve come to expect. 

This is just one solution, but the food industry will be looking for more sustainable solutions throughout 2024 and beyond. Job boards like Indeed show increased hiring for sustainable packaging engineers and scientists. Even Amazon, which is not in the food industry per se but needs sustainable packaging as much as anyone, is hiring for experts in this industry.

Smart Packaging’s Moment is Now

Some in the food industry are looking beyond simply enhancing paperboard and other sustainable packaging for durability. Several key industry players have been developing smart packaging for a while now. Given the urgency that consumer demand and PFAS bans have brought to the issue, smart packaging is starting to come out of the lab and onto grocery store shelves.

Although the field is varied, smart packaging at a high level refers to integrating technology and safe materials to create entirely new, technology-enhanced food packages. As the EPA explains, smart packaging is based on “materials and articles that monitor the condition of packaged food or the environment surrounding the food.” This might take the form of sensors that detect changes in temperature and humidity or RFID tags that track food products through the complete supply chain.

Smart packaging allows for the use of more environmentally friendly (yet less durable) packaging, with alerts if fluctuations in temperature or storage conditions might have compromised the food. Some smart packaging engineers are even incorporating nanotechnology to create scientifically enhanced sustainable packaging that is resistant to moisture and bacteria.

Consumers might already be buying foods protected with smart packaging without knowing it. Foods with short shelf lives, like fruits, vegetables, and bakery products, are using the technology. Alerts go out if the food products might have been compromised or gone bad. However it’s implemented, experts say smart packaging’s time is now. Across the food industry, recruiters are recruiting for non-traditional roles in RFID tags, blockchain, nanotechnology, sensors, and software development.

Sustainability and Safety Going Forward

The food industry is expanding into new areas because consumers are voting with their wallets. Sustainable and safe food packaging is not just a trend; it’s what customers demand. Generation Z is highly committed to environmental issues and seems less likely to compromise sustainability for convenience. As the oldest in Gen Z are now adults and making their spending choices known, expect to see the food industry respond accordingly. Follow MRINetwork for more insights on the present and future of hiring across all industries.