Packaging does so much for a bakery or snack product. First and foremost, it protects it, and ideally prolongs shelf life so that consumers can enjoy a baked good or snack at its peak quality. But packaging also can communicate to consumers about a brand and provide new ways for them to enjoy the product, whether for the convenience of a more mobile lifestyle or variety packs for family members with different tastes.

“We ask packaging to do a lot of things: promote the product, protect, transport, provide information of the product,” said Tom Egan, vice president, industry services, PMMI. “You want to know what’s in the product, whether that’s calories or potential allergens. Packaging provides all of that.”

Many packaging innovations of the past 100 years have arrived to meet those needs, whether that’s increasing throughput on production lines, extending shelf life or delivering the information consumers want. And packaging innovation continues to meet the food industry’s needs for the future.

The first patent for a pre-fabricated carton was issued in 1879 to Robert Gair, and it would be used by Nabisco in 1896 to package the company’s crackers. In 1906, Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, Mich., used the cardboard box to store its Toasted Corn Flakes, implementing a packaging design that hasn’t really changed in more than 100 years. In some ways, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. 

Just because the carton worked so well doesn’t mean companies stopped innovating. On the contrary, the packaging industry has seen leaps in innovation, particularly automation, that has enabled exponential growth for the baking and snack industry.

“You need automation in order to mass produce not only the product but also the package,” Mr. Egan said. “So automation, the machines themselves even before we get to electronic automation, is what really is driving the growth of baking and snack.”

Form/fill/seal technology empowered bakers and snack manufacturers to package product at an accelerated rate. The vertical FFS machine was patented by Walter Zwoyer in 1936. Mr. Zwoyer worked at a candy factory and was looking for a way to quickly package individual candies when he developed the machine.

“When you can package products at a higher rate on VFFS, all the rest of the equipment has to run at a faster rate,” Mr. Egan explained. “Allowing multiple lanes to be formed at once improves throughput and expands the market opportunities.”

Robotics promise the next leap when it comes to increasing production and streamlining the packaging department. While the first packaging robots were deployed in the 1960s and ’70s, they have taken some time to catch on. Schubert’s Robby the Robot demonstration at a trade show in the 1970s showed the industry the potential of robotics in the packaging department.

“What Schubert did in the confectionery market was demonstrate the ability to do a higher speed of a combination pack whether it’s the solid chocolate or combination of solid and filled chocolate,” Mr. Egan explained. “That allowed the industry to expand and increase the number of SKUs it was producing.”

By automating the packaging department, bakers and snack manufacturers were able to make their production floors more flexible and offer more products, packaged in different formats.

And then there’s sliced bread and the bread bag itself. The original bread slicer dates back to 1928 and was developed by Frederick Rohwedder and perfected by Gustav Papendick, who added the capability to wrap the bread in wax paper and package it in cardboard trays. In 1930, Wonder brought sliced bread to the entire nation, which continues to be a colloquial measure of innovation … “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

The convenience of sliced bread was a hit, but keeping sliced bread from going stale too quickly was a challenge and required packaging that preserved its softness. From wax paper to cellophane to polyethylene, materials have evolved to keep bread fresh even sliced. The 1960s brought plastic technology and bread bagging technology to automatically package bread in its now universal packaging format, a polyethylene bag with a twist tie or clip.

“If it weren’t for certain plastic bags, we wouldn’t have been able to have a 7-day shelf life for bread instead of a 2-day shelf life,” said Brian Wagner, co-founder and principal at PTIS, LLC.

According to Tom Dunn, managing director, Flexpacknology, efficient bread bag packaging required a coordinated effort of several needs. The industry had to develop the side-weld bag making process for printed polyethylene film and implement a wicketing method to stack bags for transport to the bakery. For the actual bagging process, machines had to remove bags from those wickets, open them with a puff of air and push a loaf of bread inside before applying a closure. All of this came to fruition in the 1960s when Alvin Formo developed an automatic poly bagging machine that was then tweaked after acquiring the patent rights to a bread bagging machine developed by Roy Willard and Bill Noyes.

While FFS machines and bread baggers may have met the needs of preserving shelf life and speeding up production, the stand-up pouch, introduced in the ’60s, also brought new form and the ability for resealability to snack and bakery products. The stand-up pouch opened up the possibility of packaging beyond the carton.

“The pouch allows flexibility to not only display the product in a whole different way at endcaps and points of purchase, but it also allows the convenience to carry it,” Mr. Egan explained. “When you consume half the contents, the pouch collapses and takes up less space. It can be squeezed and fit into spaces a rigid container can’t.”

Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) offers the potential to be the next frontier when it comes to keeping food fresher for longer. This technology replaces the oxygen inside a bag, like a bread bag, with a gas mixture that will stave off staling. It originated in the UK and Denmark in the 1970s and continues to gain application across the food industry. In the 1990s, Mr. Wagner worked with the United States military to use MAP to extend the shelf life of bread and cake products delivered to soldiers in the field.

“We developed a MAP extended shelf life technology that really required just removing the oxygen so mold couldn’t grow and doing some formulation work so staling couldn’t happen,” he said. “In the early ’90s, we developed a three-year shelf life bread and cake item, which is super relevant for soldiers who hadn’t been able to have bread and cake in the field until that time.”

As Sosland Publishing Company, publisher of Baking & Snack, gears up to celebrate 100 years of providing food industry professionals timely information, news and commentary, we will be publishing a series of articles across all our titles to celebrate the past, present and future of the people and industry that feeds the world.

This article is an excerpt from the August 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Centennial Report: Packaging, click here.