From carbon labels to calorie equivalents: What food packaging could look like in the future


As the world becomes more aware of the health and environmental impacts of different foods, many consumers are becoming more conscious of what goes in their trolley.

This could soon be reflected in the products themselves, as brands and retailers look to become more sustainable.

Last week, scientists recommended ‘eco-labels’ be applied to menus to inform diners about the sustainability of their meal choices.

Another recent study saw health experts call for the inclusion of ‘calorie-burning equivalents’, that reveal how many minutes of exercise is required to burn off the product, on packaging.

Many supermarkets are also phasing out ‘Best Before’ dates, in a bid to stop shoppers throwing out their products prematurely and reduce food waste.

Technological advances have been made in the packaging materials too, with biodegradable films and coatings already being trialled by different brands.

With all these new labels and materials, MailOnline takes a look at what your favourite food products could look like in the future.

With all these new labels and materials, MailOnline takes a look at what your favourite food products could look like in the future

WHAT COULD FOOD PACKAGING LOOK LIKE IN THE FUTURE?

  • Eco-labels that tell you the environmental impact of the product.
  • Calorie burning equivalents that tell you how much exercise you will have to do to burn off the food.
  • No ‘best before’ dates, as they promote throwing a food away before it is spoiled.
  • Spoilage sensors included in packaging that you can scan with your smart phone to know if it has gone bad.
  • Biodegradable coating sprayed onto fresh fruits and vegetables to help it stay fresh without the use of plastic.
  • Containers made of grass as an alternative to plastic.
  • Bottles made of wood or paper so they can biodegrade much faster than glass or plastic. 
  • Biodegradable polymer films made from soybean oil that have the strength of spider silk.

 

Eco-labels

Packaging could soon carry eco-labels that allow shoppers to check the environmental impact of their food before buying it.

Researchers at Oxford University made use of public databases to estimate the composition of 57,000 food and drink products and their environmental impact. 

Individual ingredients were mapped to environmental databases with information about greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress and eutrophication potential.

The latter is when bodies of water become enriched with nutrients, often causing harmful algal blooms and ultimately killing other life.

The percentages of all ingredients within each product were then used to give an estimated composite environmental impact score per 100g of each whole product.

It’s bad news for meat eaters, as beef and lamb top the list of worst foods for the environment, while energy drinks are among the best.  

Nuts and dried fruit, coffee, cheese, fish and seafood, tea, pies, quiches and party food, jams, chocolate and ready meals also have among the worst environmental impacts.

Squash and cordial, roast potatoes, onion rings, rice, juices and olives have among the least impact, according to the international research team. 

The researchers hope that the data will enable manufacturers and retailers to provide labelling that will enable consumers to make informed decisions about their food.

Packaging could soon carry eco-labels that allow shoppers to check the environmental impact of their food before buying it

Packaging could soon carry eco-labels that allow shoppers to check the environmental impact of their food before buying it

Researchers at Oxford University made use of public databases to estimate the composition of 57,000 food and drink products and their environmental impact. Beef and lamb topped the list of worst foods for the environment, while fizzy drinks are among the best

Researchers at Oxford University made use of public databases to estimate the composition of 57,000 food and drink products and their environmental impact. Beef and lamb topped the list of worst foods for the environment, while fizzy drinks are among the best

In July, British consumer goods giant Unilever unveiled plans to add ‘carbon footprint labels’ to its products by the end of this year

Carbon footprint labels show the carbon footprint of particular products — the total greenhouse gas emissions for which they are responsible, from ‘farm to fork’. 

However, a more recent study suggests that a regulated rating system for sustainability is needed across all food products.

A survey by the University of Bristol found that most people would change their takeaway order if they knew it would impact the environment through an eco-label.

However, while many participants claimed their level of motivation to act sustainably was above the mid-point, they still ate meat over six times a week.

As a result, the authors suggest people would benefit from further information about how meat products damage the environment through a ‘mandatory eco-label’.

They wrote: ‘A regulated traffic light eco-label, similar to standardised nutritional information on food packaging, would facilitate more sustainable choices and decrease customer confusion.’

Individual ingredients were mapped to environmental databases with information about greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress and eutrophication potential. The percentages of all ingredients within each product were then used to give an estimated composite environmental impact score per 100g of each whole product

Individual ingredients were mapped to environmental databases with information about greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress and eutrophication potential. The percentages of all ingredients within each product were then used to give an estimated composite environmental impact score per 100g of each whole product

Calorie burning equivalents 

The inclusion of calorie-burning equivalents on packaging could help discourage consumers from purchasing unhealthy foods, experts have claimed.

These would show how many minutes or hours of exercise are needed to burn off the product, instead of just the number of calories itself.

Loughborough University researchers tested the concept, known as ‘physical activity calorie equivalent’ or PACE, on 2,668 consumers.

Nearly half, 49 per cent, of study participants said PACE caught their focus more, compared to just 39 per cent for the current red, yellow and green labels which warn if an item is high in salt, sugar or fat.

And 41 per cent found PACE an easier way to comprehend calories, compared to just 27 per cent for the traffic light system of warnings. 

Lead researcher Professor Amanda Daley, an expert in behavioural medicine, said: ‘Nutritional labels support people to make food choices and traffic light labelling is the UK standard. 

‘However, many people do not understand the meaning of kilocalories or grams of fat displayed on food labels.’

The study authors added : ‘Our findings highlight that PACE labelling is a potentially important policy-based approach to strengthen current approaches to food labelling.’

This is what an ‘activity equivalent’ label would explain to consumers about the food they eat 

This is what an ‘activity equivalent’ label would explain to consumers about the food they eat 

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ‘BEST BEFORE’, ‘USE-BY’ AND ‘SELL-BY’?

Best before – food is safe to eat after this date, but may not be at its best

Use-by – food is not safe to eat after this date, even if it smells OK

Sell-by – an outdated term that is no longer suitable for use

No ‘Best Before’ dates

In July, Marks & Spencer announced it was removing best before dates from hundreds of fresh products, as revealed by The Mail On Sunday. 

This was in a bid to help tackle the food waste problem, as 9.5 million tonnes of it is produced in the UK every year.

The high street giant axed the labels from 85 per cent of its produce – more than 300 products – including apples, potatoes and broccoli.

Instead, staff used a code to ensure quality and freshness was maintained on the shelves.

‘The best before date is about quality and not safety,’ explained Dr Christian Reynolds, Senior Lecturer in Food Policy at City, University of London.

‘The food will be safe to eat after this date but may not be at its best. Its flavour and texture might not be as good.’

This move was followed up by Waitrose, and ASDA, which removed best before labels from a combined 750 products.

Morrisons scrapped use-by dates from 90 per cent of its own-brand milk in January, encouraging its customers to use a ‘sniff test’ instead. 

However Tesco was the pioneer, as the supermarket giant got rid of the dates on more than 100 fresh food products in 2018.

Spoilage sensors 

New technology has also been developed that could detect when food is unsafe to eat, providing more accuracy than a use by date.

Scientists at Imperial College London created prototypes in 2019 known as ‘paper-based electrical gas sensors’, or PEGS.

Made from cellulose paper and carbon electrodes, PEGS detect detect spoilage gases like ammonia and trimethylamine in meat and fish products.

The sensor data can be read by smartphones, so that people can hold their phone up to the packaging to see whether the food is safe to eat. 

Plus, the sensors are biodegradeable, nontoxic and work at room temperature, meaning they do not consume vast amounts of energy to function.

They also work better than colour-changing sensors, as these run the risk of increasing food waste if consumers interpret a slight change in hue as the product being ‘off’.

During laboratory test, PEGS picked up trace amounts of spoilage gases on packaged fish and chicken quicker than existing sensors.

New technology has also been developed that could detect when food is unsafe to eat, providing more accuracy than a use by date. Scientists at Imperial College London created prototypes in 2019 known as ‘paper-based electrical gas sensors’, or PEGS

New technology has also been developed that could detect when food is unsafe to eat, providing more accuracy than a use by date. Scientists at Imperial College London created prototypes in 2019 known as ‘paper-based electrical gas sensors’, or PEGS

No ammonia present, tag responds. Right:

Ammonia present, no response

The sensor data can be read by smartphones, so that people can hold their phone up to the packaging to see whether the food is safe to eat.Left: No ammonia present, tag responds. Right: Ammonia present, no response

Biodegradable coating  

A new biodegradeable coating has been developed that can be sprayed on to fresh produce, and keep it fresher for 50 per cent longer.

It was developed by researchers from Rutgers School of Public Health in the US, who hope plant-based coating could soon replace plastic packaging in supermarkets.

The coating uses fibres made from polysaccharides – the most abundant carbohydrates found in food.

These fibres are spun from a heating device that resembles a hair dryer, before being ‘shrink-wrapped’ over foods including avocados or steaks.

Researchers from Rutgers School of Public Health have developed a coating that can be sprayed on food – and say it keeps leftovers fresh for 50 per cent longer

Researchers from Rutgers School of Public Health have developed a coating that can be sprayed on food – and say it keeps leftovers fresh for 50 per cent longer

Researchers from Rutgers School of Public Health have developed a coating that can be sprayed on food – and say it keeps leftovers fresh for 50 per cent longer

Once you're ready to eat the food, the coating can be rinsed off with water, and degrades in soil within three days

Once you’re ready to eat the food, the coating can be rinsed off with water, and degrades in soil within three days

The fibres are laced with thyme oil, citric acid and nisin – naturally occurring antimicrobial ingredients that fight spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms such as E. coli and listeria.

The coating can not only help to prevent spoilage, but is also sturdy enough to prevent bruising, according to the team. 

Once you’re ready to eat the food, the coating can be rinsed off with water, and degrades in soil within three days.

A version of this type of coating, called Apeel, has already been trialled in the UK by Tesco and ASDA, which was given safety approval by the European Commission in 2019. 

Apeel is made from plant-derived materials found in seeds and fruit pulp and forms a natural oxygen barrier, preventing produce from decaying.

It keeps moisture inside and oxygen out to slow the rate at which it spoils, leading to a longer shelf life and less need for cooling and packaging

It is safe to eat, and is provided as a powder that can be mixed with water. It can be applied by spray, dip, or brush-on methods.

Containers made of grass

Researchers in Denmark have created a biodegradable material made from grass fibres that could replace plastic food containers.

The project, known as SinProPack, aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 210 kilotons annually with the implementation of its plastic.

They hope to use grass, clover and peat soil as sources of fibre to turn into cellulose for the material.

Anne Christine Steenkjær Hastrup, center director at Danish Technological Institute, said: in a statement: ‘Disposable packaging made of grass brings a lot of environmental benefits.

‘The packaging will be 100% biodegradable, so if someone accidentally drops their packaging in nature, it will decompose naturally.’

The grass and clover will first be biorefined to extract the protein for animal feed, and the remaining fibre can be pulped for cellulose.

This project is expected to be completed in August 2023.

Researchers in Denmark have created a biodegradable material made from grass fibres that could replace plastic food containers (stock image)

Researchers in Denmark have created a biodegradable material made from grass fibres that could replace plastic food containers (stock image)

Bottles made of wood or paper

Drink industry giants have trialled innovative, biodegradeable materials to hold their products.

In June, Carlsberg announced it would be testing out bottles made from wood fibres that are fully recyclable.

Known as ‘The Fibre Bottle’,  it has the added benefit of insulative properties which can help keep beer colder for longer, compared to cans or glass bottles.

It has a plant-based polyethylene furanoate (PEF) polymer lining that is both recyclable and degrades naturally, as it is made from natural raw materials.

The material is also a ‘highly effective barrier’ between the beer and the fibre outer shell, according to Carlsberg.

This protects the taste and fizziness of the beer better than conventional PET plastic linings, the firm explained.

The only part of the bottle that does not biodegrade is the metal cap, but this is recyclable. 

In the future, Carlsberg aims for the Fibre Bottle to achieve up to 80 per cent less carbon emissions than its current single-use glass bottles.

In June, Carlsberg announced it would be testing out bottles made from wood fibres that is fully recyclable. Known as 'The Fibre Bottle', it has the added benefit of insulative properties which can help keep beer colder for longer, compared to cans or glass bottles

In June, Carlsberg announced it would be testing out bottles made from wood fibres that is fully recyclable. Known as ‘The Fibre Bottle’, it has the added benefit of insulative properties which can help keep beer colder for longer, compared to cans or glass bottles 

Additionally, many drinks companies, including Carlsberg and Coca Cola, have trialled the use of paper bottles.

In May this year, wine brand When in Rome introduced bottles was made from 94 per cent recycled paper and included a plastic liner.

The bottles weighed just 83g, compared with 400 to 500g for conventional glass, making them easier and cheaper to transport.

Research by quality and safety assurance firm Intertek found the carbon footprint of the bottles is 84 per cent less than a glass one because of the lower energy use involved in its manufacture and transport. 

Its water footprint is also at least four times lower than glass.

In the same month, Heinz trialled paper bottles for holding its famous tomato ketchup, as part of their aim to make all their packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. 

The tests were to find out if the paper version will keep the customary ‘tapping’ on the bottom of the bottle which gets the ketchup to dollop onto food. 

The bottle is made from wood pulp and would be made available alongside the current classic glass and plastic bottles. 

In May this year, wine brand When in Rome introduced bottles was made from 94 per cent recycled paper and included a plastic liner. The bottles weighed just 83g, compared with 400 to 500g for conventional glass, making them easier and cheaper to transport

In May this year, wine brand When in Rome introduced bottles was made from 94 per cent recycled paper and included a plastic liner. The bottles weighed just 83g, compared with 400 to 500g for conventional glass, making them easier and cheaper to transport 

In the same month, Heinz trialled paper bottles for holding its famous tomato ketchup, as part of their aim to make all their packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025

In the same month, Heinz trialled paper bottles for holding its famous tomato ketchup, as part of their aim to make all their packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025 

Polymer films made from ‘vegan spider silk’

A vegan film inspired by spider silk was created by University of Cambridge scientists last year, that could replace single-use plastic versions.

It has the strength of human-made synthetic polymers in plastic bags and film wraps, but fully decomposes naturally, without harming the environment. 

The team replicated the structures found on spider silk by using soy protein isolate (SPI), which is readily available as a by-product of soybean oil production. 

The material is able to be composted at home, whereas other types of bioplastics require industrial composting facilities to degrade. 

It will be commercialised by the company Xampla, that will introduce a range of single-use sachets and capsules which can replace the plastic ones used in everyday products, like dishwasher tablets and laundry detergent capsules.

The firm is also testing the plant-based film in food packaging like sandwich containers and salad boxes. 

A vegan film inspired by spider silk was created by University of Cambridge scientists last year, that could replace single-use plastic versions. It has the strength of human-made synthetic polymers in plastic bags and film wraps, but fully decomposes naturally, without harming the environment

A vegan film inspired by spider silk was created by University of Cambridge scientists last year, that could replace single-use plastic versions. It has the strength of human-made synthetic polymers in plastic bags and film wraps, but fully decomposes naturally, without harming the environment 

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