Packaging for plant-based alternatives: Design and labeling strategies drive shelf appeal amid processing challenges
31 Aug 2022 --- Global consumers are increasingly adopting plant-based diets amid rising climate change fears, health considerations and animal welfare concerns. Embracing this trend, plant-based brands are using packaging design to compete with conventional meat and dairy producers on busy retailer shelves while ensuring product protection and hygiene.
The exponential growth of plant-based alternatives is clear to see. Innova Market Insights has tracked +49% annual growth in plant-based F&B launches (2017-2021). Over half of these launches are packaged in plastic.
However, the processing and packing of plant-based products present unique challenges. As Amcor Flexibles’ senior marketing manager Rosalia Rosalinova explains, plant-based products behave differently from meat products, setting additional and higher demands during processing.
“Plant-based products are more challenging to handle, primarily because of their texture, which is softer than regular meat, creating a higher risk of deformation when processed. The presence of fluids, like water or oil, brine or sugar, also influence plant-based products’ appearance, texture, flavor and stability,” she tells PackagingInsights.
“Due to this [challenge], it is often vital to use packaging that maintains the product’s stability during supply chain and transport. Skin films are particularly adapted, as they follow the product shape and preserve it during the supply chain.”
Amcor claims that its SkinNova skin pack can reduce plastic waste by 70% and carbon footprint by 45% compared to conventional modified atmosphere packaging. Also, its Packpyrus solution uses a lightweight, thermoformable paper-based tray for a reported 52% reduction in non-renewable primary energy and a 56% reduction in carbon footprint compared to traditional plastic APET/PE trays.
Milk alternative production challenges
Likewise, producing milk alternatives from soy, oats, rice, almonds and other plant sources throws up specific challenges. While the main production steps for all milk alternatives are essentially the same, the individual process steps vary depending on the input materials used.
Considerations include whether the materials are fresh or dried, whole nuts or grains, and meals or flours, notes Peter Moertl, press relations at Krones.
“Krones has focused on the production of oat drinks and offers three different process variants: manufacture from ready-to-use oat base, manufacture from oatmeal, and manufacture from whole oat grains or flakes,” he tells PackagingInsights.
“We support producers with expertise in all aspects of processing the widest range of grain types (raw material handling), in particular in enzymatic hydrolysis, and offer our skills from the field of thermal product treatment and subsequent filling and packaging.”
At the same time, producers must respond to consumers’ growing awareness of environmental sustainability when making packaging decisions.
“If you use, for example, recycled PET bottles, this might also be an argument for consumers to buy the product. After all, the container decoration first serves as an eye-catcher, then a source of information, and also conveys a message oriented toward the respective target group – whether young, classic or modern,” adds Moertl.
Finding favor with flexitarians
Plant-based brands also employ strategic design and labeling strategies on-pack to entice flexitarian consumers with messaging around taste, familiarity, convenience and health to compete with long-established meat and dairy products.
“Flexitarians value health, but they also don’t want to miss out, so indulgent messaging is important too,” says Stephanie Jaczniakowska-McGirr, international head of food industry and retail at ProVeg.
“Data from Innova Market Insights shows that indulgent descriptors on products have increased by 34% between 2019 and 2021, showing that brands are taking steps to successfully target flexitarian consumers with their on-pack messaging.”
“It’s also really important to highlight to consumers how easy your product is to cook with. A strapline, cooking time, and a serving suggestion on the front of the pack are the three best ways to quickly appeal to consumers and entice them with the convenience of your plant-based product.”
Tofoo’s Scrambled Tofu packaging is a case in point, clearly using these top criteria for flexitarian consumers to inform the product’s messaging. The packaging artwork subtly features an image of a typical “scrambled egg” meal, which looks both tasty, healthy and familiar. Also, convenience is reinforced by the description, which portrays that the product is pre-scrambled and pre-seasoned.
“With tofu sometimes seen as quite a scary, difficult-to-prepare or potentially bland product for non-vegan consumers, Tofoo has done a great job of ensuring flexitarians know how to use it and find it easy to incorporate into their typical meals,” Jaczniakowska-McGirr tells PackagingInsights.
Meanwhile, Moertl argues that plant-based brands can achieve a unique selling point on supermarket shelves with new packaging technologies, such as digital container decoration. “In contrast to classic labels, QR codes and barcodes open up new opportunities for consumer products to stand out from the mass of competing products,” he says.
Mimicking animal product messaging
Moreover, as most consumer behavior is subconscious, product packaging must connect with the “non-rational” part of a shopper’s mind. Plant-based brands can achieve this goal by closely mimicking traditional animal products.
“Mimicking imagery and language found on the packaging of animal-based products is a useful tool to illustrate familiarity for the flexitarian consumer. However, to differentiate from meat and dairy products, ProVeg recommends that plant-based products get some kind of certification such as the V-label to give consumers who are seeking 100% animal-free products confidence,” explains Jaczniakowska-McGirr.
However, companies in numerous countries face considerable uncertainty over labeling policy, with legislation in the pipeline or already published restricting the wording that plant-based companies can use to describe their products.
“For example, France issued a decree banning ‘meaty’ words on plant-based products, but the Conseil d’Etat suspended the Decree last month. South Africa also imposed labeling restrictions on plant-based products without any prior warning for plant-based companies. However, swift legal action against the measures by the Consumer Goods Council has seen the restrictions put on hold this month,” says Jaczniakowska-McGirr.
In 2020, The European Parliament rejected a proposal to ban the use of words like “sausage” and “burger” to describe vegan and vegetarian products, in what plant-based industry leaders described as a “victory for common sense.” However, in a surprise move, MEPs also voted to ban any indirect reference to dairy products for plant-based foods, meaning descriptors like “yogurt-style” or “cream imitation” would be prohibited.
Regardless, the rise of plant-based diets shows no signs of slowing down, as climate change concerns increasingly influence consumer purchasing decisions. A recent study by Oxford University, UK, examined the impacts of 57,000 food products in the UK and Ireland and found that plant-based meat alternatives produced around one-fifth to one-tenth of the environmental impact of animal-based counterparts.
By Joshua Poole
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