Column: Packaging for ready-to-eat plant-based meals
Convenience, or ready meals, exploded in consumption since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic as restaurants shuttered and more people ate at home. These prepared meals are often perceived as less healthy because consumers frequently equate food made and packaged ahead of time with preservatives.
With consumers seeking out alternatives following rising health awareness, producers of plant-based meat products — now widely available at grocery stores and restaurants — consider ready meals as the next important step for the food group to continue its rise in acceptance. This conclusion comes from market research firm Packaged Facts, which indicates that marketers of plant-based meat products should focus on convenience when marketing to consumers. Regular consumers of plant-based meat as well as those who have not eaten these products are more likely to look for prepared meal options when strapped for time.
As ready meals continue to grow in popularity, almost a quarter of ready meals are suitable for vegetarians. The number of plant-based ready meals available in supermarkets has grown from 3% to 16% in the past two years, according to a 2020 report by the Eating Better Alliance. The same report also indicates that while plant-based meat products are usually more expensive than animal proteins, plant-based ready meals are actually cheaper per portion than meat meals at most supermarkets.
Another growing reason millennials and younger consumers are turning to plant-based products leads back to its sustainability for the planet. Transitioning to plant-based meat and dairy has environmental benefits like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, freeing up land to support biodiversity and carbon sequestration and reducing antibiotic use.
The natural next step is to include packaging that also reduces the carbon footprint, with many plant-based ready meals packaged in sustainable materials containing polylactic acid. The compostable and recyclable material is growing in use as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuel plastics like polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene. Derived from several different renewable plant-based materials like sugarcane or corn starch and with characteristics like petrochemical-derived plastics, PLA is resilient, rigid and UV-light resistant.
While the expanding market for plant-based meals, packaged foods and snacks is nudging the food industry to use more biodegradable materials such as PLA, the more significant shift towards the material lies in its lesser carbon footprint. The demand for PLA is projected to reach $1.7 billion by 2026, with developments underway for large-scale application in rigid containers for yogurt, juice, water and many other food products in the future. Further, with demand increasing from the flexible packaging sector, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of packaging machinery are incorporating the films into new machines and developing retrofits for machinery already in place.
No other event on the east coast will offer such a wide range of state-of-the-art packaging and processing solutions as PACK EXPO East (March 21-23, 2022 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center). With 400 exhibitors concentrated in one location just a drive or train-trip away for most of the East Coast, PACK EXPO East is a convenient opportunity to see machinery in action, in person, and find solutions to adapt in a changing marketplace.