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The Pros and Cons of 7 Types of Food Packaging Explained

Anton Hutson
Founder & owner
Tendring Pacific
Food packaging comes in an amazing array of types. These range from methods that have been around for more than a hundred years, such as metal cans, bottle and jars, to modern high-tech approaches such as Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP).

Here, Anton Hutson takes us on a tour through the different types of packaging products and methods in today’s market. Anton, founder of the UK-based company Tendring Pacific, has spent 30 years in various areas of the print and packaging industry.

His primary area of interest is in controlling the consistency and quality of packaging materials and in optimising the packaging process to reduce waste.

A good atmosphere...

In Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) food is packaged in a container such as a plastic tray or bag and the air is flushed out and replaced by a mixture of gases. The type and amount of gas used in the mixture will depend on the product. The aim is to increase the shelf life of the product while maintaining its attractive appearance. Read more about about shelf life in this case study.

Often this means removing most of the oxygen so that microbes that otherwise spoil food cannot survive in the package. Here, a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide may be suitable. These gases occur naturally in the atmosphere so they are perfectly safe. The method is excellent for fresh produce, ranging from meat products to fruit. MAP requires a high level of quality assurance: it is vital that the gas mixture is correct and that there are no leaks in the packaging materials.

  • Good shelf life
  • Excellent presentation
  • Ideal for fresh produce
  • High level of quality assurance needed, requiring appropriate investment in equipment

The value of vacuum

In vacuum packaging the air is sucked out of the flexible film surrounding the produce and the package is then sealed. The film forms itself around the shape of the product. The absence of air increases the shelf life of the product. 

It can be difficult to get attractive presentation of the food. The often lumpy package does not make an ideal surface for labelling either. The method is restricted to products that can withstand being deformed.

So, vacuum packaging is suitable for products such as meat cuts. Vacuum packaging is not well suited for soft products such as fruit or soft cheeses.


  • Extends shelf life
  • Not especially attractive appearance
  • Can be difficult to label because of lumpy shape
  • Only suitable for things that can be compressed by the packaging
  • Need good quality assurance to check for leaks, something that can be tricky to achieve


Skin packing
has become popular in recent years. The product is typically placed on a rigid tray of paperboard, and then covered in a plastic film that has been softened with heat. The film forms around the shape of the product and is sealed to the tray below. It gives good shelf life and a more attractive presentation than standard vacuum packaging. However, skin packing is not suited to all products, and is typically used for products such as meat cuts or fish.

  • Extends shelf life
  • Better presentation than vacuum packaging
  • Not suitable for all products

Can do!

The big advantage of packaging food in metal cans is shelf life. Products in a can are able to last for months or even years. The packaging is robust. However, the consumer can’t see what is inside the can, and the method is not suitable for fresh produce because the canning process requires very high temperatures. Also cans are heavy, so transport costs can be high.


  • Long shelf life
  • Robust
  • You can’t see what’s inside
  • Heavy means expensive transport
  • Not good for fresh produce
  • Expensive

Heart of glass

Glass bottles and jars
have been around for hundreds of years. Glass is transparent, so you can see what you are getting. In addition, glass can be formed into many different shapes. This can be important for making a distinctive-looking container, giving the product strong brand identity. As with metal cans, shelf life can be very long. However, like metal cans, bottles and jars are not best suited for fresh produce. Glass is fragile and heavy.

  • Can be shaped to give distinctive brand identity
  • Transparent, so product is visible
  • Not for fresh foodstuffs
  • Can break easily
  • Heavy so expensive to transport
  • Expensive

Cheap and cheerful

One great advantage with packaging food in paper or card is that the material is inexpensive. Also it is easy to print graphics and text onto the packaging. This means the packaging can be very distinctive, with colourful logos and images. However, because the material is porous it means that the contents of the package are not protected from the outside air. So for fresh produce the shelf life is reduced. Often card or paper is used as ’secondary packaging’. This means the product is contained in, say, a plastic film or bag and then placed in a cardboard carton. Breakfast cereals are often packaged in this way.


  • Low cost
  • Good scope for distinctive packaging graphics, etc
  • Short shelf life for fresh produce 
  • Only suitable for dry products

And finally... a bit of a chill

By freezing food it is possible to extend its shelf life for several months. But while some foods freeze well, others are not so suitable. Fresh fruit, for example, generally loses texture and flavour after freezing. Frozen food is not especially attractive to the eye. And it is important to ensure that from processing to purchasing the ’temperature chain’ is kept intact. In other words the product must be kept at the right temperature all the way from the factory to the domestic freezer. This requires specialist transportation vehicles.


  • Good extension of shelf life


  • Not too attractive
  • Many products do not freeze well
  • Production and transport requires specialist low-temperature environments

If you want to read more about the history of MAP, have a look at this blogpost.

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