While convenience has been a driver of food product and package design for the better part of two decades, the on-the-go nature of today’s consumer lifestyle is increasingly evident in the type and volume of convenience-oriented items on the marketplace, including in the bakery and snack aisles.

In addition to their quest for quickness, consumers have demonstrated a demand for diet-driven bakery and snack items. From ancient grains to gluten-free to many other types of better-for-you and free-from items, new products are typically sold in packaging that makes a statement to potential buyers.

Add to that the ongoing trend of grazing vs. three-square meals a day — the latest research from Mintel, Chicago, shows that 94% of all Americans snack at least once a day, and half snack two to three times a day — and you can see how lifestyles impact packaging. “Somehow, between grab-and-go, the economic situation of consumers worldwide and concerns about calorie consumption, all of these trends are fitting together,” observed Jorge Izquierdo, vice-president, market development, for PMMI.

Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director, Strategic Resource Group, New York City, said the baking and snack industries have used a variety of packaging innovations geared around shoppers’ concurrent interests and demands. “Packaging for many consumer packaged goods companies is outstanding, particularly in baked goods and snacks, where two-thirds to three-fourths are impulse [purchases]. The great quality of the packaging — including graphics — is a catalyst to get consumer to purchase these items,” he said.

The one, the many

Although the bakery and snack food categories are considered mature, recent packaging innovations reflect the growing number of graze-happy shoppers, said Dennis Gunnell, vice-president of sales and marketing for Formost Fuji Corp., Woodinville, WA. “Something that I’ve seen is a kind of a split to either single-serve, smaller-portion packages or to multipacks. I think it all has to do with convenience,” he said.

Vince Tamborello, general manager for Athens, GA-based Benchmark Automation, LLC, part of Cincinnati-based Pro Mach, Inc., described a similar split. “Most definitely, we’re seeing people moving to individually wrapped products and multipacks of individually wrapped products.  On-the-go eating has become a bigger part of our business,” he said.

Mr. Flickinger, for his part, agreed that while there may not be a one-size-fits-all situation, there is a lot to be said for items that are singular in nature. “Brands like Bimbo Bakeries USA’s Sara Lee are bringing single-serve and multipacks to a lot of their baked goods and snack packages. Those items can be thrown in a lunch bag if they’re single-serve, or with multipacks, a parent or caregiver can open the package and serve half-dozen kids a treat before school or before or after sports,” he said.

Within the market for single-serve and multipacks, nutrition bars stand out. “The number of systems for bars that we’ve done is tremendously higher than in the previous 10 years, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing,” Mr. Tamborello reported.

Mr. Gunnell also underscored the strength of the nutrition/health bar segment. “I think that’s been a big thing this past year. There were a lot of nutrition bars that took off at the beginning of the last year, and it seems to be large growth category,” he remarked.

In addition to bars, flexible packaging for multipacks of individually bagged snacks such as chips, crackers and cookies are also a hallmark of today's market as 2016 approaches. “We’re doing a lot with shrink-wrapped caddies, and that is also driven by convenience,” Mr. Tamborello said.

For consumers, flexible multipacks of individually wrapped single-serve portions offer some distinct benefits, Mr. Gunnell added. “When you had the old package, whether you had three or 30 packages in it, the box was the same size. But with a flexible package, it gets smaller every time you take something out of it, making room in the pantry. It’s another reason people love it,” he said.

Creating flexible multipacks can pose some issues on the line, however. “It can be a real challenge to bring different varieties together in a multipack. You could have five of one kind and four of another, for example, or a case where the packages are different sizes but the same weight, and you’re trying to automate it all,” Mr. Gunnell explained. “That can create an opportunity for contract packaging because a lot of big companies are set up to run one product for three days, not for running four different varieties.” 

Mr. Gunnell cited versatility as another effect of the push toward variety. “Flexibility seems to be a big thing for us. Before we even finish an installation, a customer will ask, ‘Can you do this?’ or ‘Can you configure it to do this?’ ” he noted.

Well, now

Another trend impacting snack and baked-good package design is the latest incarnation of the health-and-wellness mindset: more better-for-you and free-from foods. According to PMMI’s Global Packaging Landscape report for 2015, consumer awareness of health and wellness is one of three top trends affecting global packaging.

Both better-for-you and free-from (including gluten-free, peanut/tree nut-free, etc.) products can affect the processing and packaging environment in a variety of ways.

Mr. Tamborello pointed to allergens and their associated food-safety issues. “Packaging tends to be similar for those kinds of products, but the focus there is on allergens and changeovers. In almost every meeting with manufacturers, they’ll ask, ‘How do I sanitize the machine and shorten the changeover?’ ” he said, noting that Benchmark Automation recently shipped its first all-stainless, full-washdown line for crackers.

Likewise, Mr. Gunnell said that sanitary design is also top-of-mind among customers in this industry, something reflected in Formost Fuji’s machinery. “For customers who run peanut butter and then another flavor, they have the ability to completely clean and sanitize that system, which opens up and has no flat surfaces. It is cleanable but also visually easy to inspect,” he remarked.

From a functionality standpoint, the use of new or different ingredients in better-for-you baked goods and snacks like flax seeds, chia seeds or quinoa also can make a difference in package integrity. “It can create an issue with abrasion, with sharp edges that can poke holes in the package during the shipping phase,” Mr. Gunnell noted.

On-package graphics and information are also pivotal for food deemed healthy or free from certain ingredients. “One of the big roles of a package is educating the consumer, so you’re seeing more information and cleaner labels on packaging,” Mr. Izquierdo noted.

As the clamor for better-for-you foods grows, consumers are also keen on packaging that is better for the environment. According to PMMI’s Global Packaging Landscape report, the influence of recycling and environmental issues is also one of the main trends impacting packaging worldwide.

Looking ahead to next year and beyond, Mr. Gunnell said that another key to efficiency and consistency will be improved automation. “Robotics are driving a lot of that, providing more capability and the ability to handle products in a robotic way,” he explained.

That observation was echoed by Mr. Izquierdo, who emphasized the growing use of robotics in secondary and flexible packaging. “Certainly, robotics and vision system are playing significant roles,” he said.

As consumers want more and faster options for healthy in a hurry, packaging manufacturers are in a position to help change the game for bakers and snack makers.