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Packaging as a thermometer of trends in the fruit and vegetable sector

Fruit and vegetable consumption continues its upward trend. The tendency to adopt healthy diets, reinforced by ability of these foods to prevent a multitude of diseases, has led to increased consumption by consumers. That is why they are taking up more and more space both on supermarket shelves and other channels (such as vending), where packaging has become a fundamental driver that sets current trends.

28 Oct 2020

In Spain, according to data provided by the consulting firm Kantar in its 2018 Consumer Panel, the average estimated expenditure on fruit and vegetables amounted to €653.96 per person per year, 4.9% more than the figure reported in its previous study. The report also reveals growth in purchase frequency (+1.6%) and the average spend (+3.2%), standing at €5.80. While, until July 2019, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mapa), the presence of fruit and vegetables in households increased by 1.5%, with a value of € 7,158 million (+ 4%).

So, the enhanced shopping experience, proliferation of the convenience factor,  achievement of greater sustainability and the optimisation of product safety until it reaches the final recipient are among the trends observed when analysing the latest solutions and launches developed by this auxiliary industry of the fruit and vegetable sector. However, the worldwide COVID-19 health crisis could delay it becoming established in the market.

The disappearance of traditional plastic in fresh fruit and vegetable packaging, scheduled for 2030 in Europe, will be one of the lines that will suffer the most until the pandemic is under control. The fear of infection through direct contact with products and increased online demand are the main factors, according to several professionals, although in its analysis entitled  'The impact of Covid-19 ' the Freshfel Europe association of producers,  says that strengthening of hygienic-sanitary measures will force a return to modalities which have already been used. 

Similarly, some materials used as alternatives to plastic have been out of stock, because the supply chain between Asia and Europe was interrupted for several months. This situation has mainly affected countries where demand for packaged products has been increasing. For example, in Spain, according to Ecoembes, the use of yellow containers increased by 15% during the state of alarm, while demand for other containers decreased.

Despite the medical crisis, the use of containers made with recycled or compostable materials continues to be positive for fruit and vegetable companies. According to a survey carried out by YouGov for Alimarket Consumer Goods (before the coronavirus outbreak), 31% of those surveyed said they would buy fruit and vegetables in alternative packaging to plastic and 49% of them said they were very likely to do if they were given the chance. This suggests that about 80% are likely to buy them.

Among the main options are recycled and recyclable plastics and biodegradable and compostable components. The use of cardboard, wood and even glass has also gained ground for some V-range references, while the supply of organic fruit and vegetables has expanded. It is in this line of business where many companies are presenting their solutions, since it is no longer feasible to present these products in traditional plastic.

Added value ally 

The Covid-19 pandemic will also damage tourism and reduce consumption in hotels, restaurants and cafeterias (HORECA in its Spanish acronym), which accounts for a third of consumption in Spain, according to Freshfel. In light of this, the sector is focusing on large-scale distribution, and new types of packaging aim to provide added value to customers within this channel.

That is why several companies have chosen to include high-capacity boxes for supermarkets and hypermarkets in their catalogues. This packaging typically draws attention to the product at the point of sale and saves time during shelf stacking. It also helps to reduce the carbon footprint in transport, most are made with 100% recyclable components, and they provide a superior, more personalised image. The solution is specifically designed for seasonal fruit, melons and watermelons, for example, since it has a significant surface area on shelves. 

However, there are still plenty innovations and new developments that offer ways of consuming fruit and vegetables in an easy and healthy way. This is where the growth in vending becomes particularly significant. According to the Mapa, this channel accounts for 4% of purchases made by Spaniards outside their homes. The boom in vending, with sales totalling around 2,900 million items per year, has prompted more and more companies to opt for convenience packaging for juice, fruit salad, pre-prepared food (cut and dried) and natural food, among many others.

The launch of heat-sealable packaging with barrier properties can also be extrapolated to vending, which extends the useful life of the food while preserving its sensory characteristics.

Convenience packaging

The demand for 'on-the-go' products, healthy, convenient to use and ready to eat, poses a challenge to the fruit and vegetable packaging industry which, like much of the mass market, is facing new demand for sustainability. However, this does not mean declaring war on plastic, rather investing in alternative materials combined with reasonable use and responsible waste management. In this regard, some substitution of plastic trays with paper reels, heat-sealed cardboard and paper pulp is observed.

Prepared salads are among the convenience products to make most progress in this regard. Since their traditional packaging takes about 400 years to decompose naturally, the vast majority of firms are now using solutions made with rPET, a sustainable, recycled material, which is recyclable and suitable for food contact. "It reduces the carbon footprint and gives a second life to plastic", explain industry sources. Microwaveable dishes are also adapting to this trend and, albeit more slowly than salads, they are launching eco-designs.