If food processors—particularly those of alternative proteins—view packaging as an afterthought, they may find it difficult to succeed in today’s market.

Consumers who purchase and eat alternative protein products typically want them packaged in a responsible way, too. “These [alternative protein] products are mainly consumed by people that care a lot about the environment; they also want to have a packaging that goes with it. So they would like to see packaging that also cares about the environment—and more than the average product,” says Marcel Veenstra, marketing and communications manager at Sealpac, a packaging equipment maker. “For that reason, we do get a lot of requests for what they call sustainable packaging—which has as little plastic as possible.”

Because consumers want something they can recycle, hybrid packs with a paper base and a thin plastic liner as well as packaging made completely out of plant-based fibers, are entering the market.

Brazil-based Future Farm sells and ships its plant-based meat
Brazil-based Future Farm sells and ships its plant-based meat all over the world using sustainable packaging that is also attractive and can compete on store shelves. Photo courtesy of Future Farm

Take Footprint, for instance. This material science company was co-founded seven years ago by Troy Swope, an Intel engineer who was responsible for transporting silicon wafers from one part of the world to another. When the chips were damaged during shipment due to outgassing of the plastic packaging, Swope, who is a father of four, thought, “If this plastic outgassing is damaging one of the most sophisticated materials in the world, what’s it actually doing to our food?”

According to Heather Knox, executive head of communications at Footprint, the testing indicated that plastic from the packaging was leaching into every food product tested. “The evidence and research shows that plastic from packaging does in fact leach into food—especially if you put it in the microwave or it sits for a long period of time,” Knox explains.

This is when Swope and fellow engineer Yoke Chung left Intel to start Footprint and develop materials that could replace plastic, both in performance and with a competitive price. “The truth is plastic is actually really good when it comes to performing—you know, keeping liquids from leaking out, keeping food protected during freezing, keeping it protected for long periods of time while it sits on the shelf before somebody buys it—but as we all know, it’s petroleum based. It’s coming from a non-renewable resource,” Knox says.

Heather Knox “The evidence and research shows that plastic from packaging does in fact leach into food—especially if you put it in the microwave or it sits for a long period of time.”

— Heather Knox, executive head of communications at Footprint

For this reason, alternative protein processors might ask themselves what their brand is trying to achieve. “If it is just to serve plant-based or alternative protein to consumers, and the bigger environmental footprint is not in play, then today’s or yesterday’s solutions might be what they choose. However, if they’re also looking to make a statement about their overall contribution to a better planet or to health, then they might want to think about some other things, which could include, for example, plant-based materials,” Knox says.

In the case of Footprint, they use plant-based fibers that are responsibly sourced to create their products, according to Knox. How can companies know where their fibers are from? Knox says the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative offer certifications that ensure materials are sourced from a forest that has been certified as renewable. “This is one way to make sure that you know you’re not contributing to the bigger depletion and that you’re actually looking for partners that are sourcing responsibly,” she says.

The Future Foretold

Future Farm is a food processor that wants to make a statement about its overall contribution to a better planet and to health. This Brazil-based alternative protein provider has a clear vision: a world where people choose to eat plants, not animals.

This guiding vision defines the company’s culture, working environment and the people they hire. Every employee at Future Farm—from R&D to merchandisers, account managers to customer service—all share the same vision that has contributed to the company’s growth over the past few years.

Marcos Leta, founder of the company, stands by their credo: “We’re not packing humanity onto a rocket and abandoning ship. It’s time to stop trashing the Earth like a rock star on a bender in a hotel room and start cleaning up the mess we’ve made. That means inviting the world to try something different by eating something new.”

Next Meats CMO Brendan Cravitz“Our focus is to follow our mission at Next Meats of creating products and processes that put our planet first.”

— Brendan Cravitz, CMO at Next Meats USA

“We are a food tech and lifestyle brand that was born to change the way the world eats,” says Leta. Innovation is key, he says, and they built their factory with change in mind from day one. He says it is important to keep up with all the most advanced technologies, so Future Farm gave themselves the ability to modify production whenever new techniques became available—including their packaging.

To choose their packaging, Leta says, “We had to answer this question: What technology would we need to ship our plant-based meat all over the world, and in a sustainable way?” He says they also evaluated which packaging would attract attention on the shelf. “So we chose biodegradable trays to give this experience to the consumer. We also want to give this 360 experience for our consumers.” This is why the company chose to use Eco One sustainable trays made with organic compounds, which when added to the polymer chain of plastic, transforms the packaging to be suitable for the food.

Marcos Leta – Founder of Future Farm“We're not packing humanity onto a rocket and abandoning ship. It's time to stop trashing the Earth...and start cleaning up the mess we've made.”

— Marcos Leta, founder of Future Farm

Leta also notes that whether the product is refrigerated or frozen will require not a different package but a different process for the packaging. For example, he says, “For our frozen products, we use the biodegradable tray and then it is quick frozen in less than 40 seconds and we don’t need to use any gases. But for refrigerated products, we use the biodegradable trays but with modified atmospheric technology.”

Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) consists of modifying the proportions of the gases present in the air that we breathe (78% nitrogen 20.9% oxygen, 0.9% argon and 0.04% CO2 and 0.16% other gases). Generally, the final atmosphere consists in a single gas or a mixture of gases, depending on the food type. Because the reduced plastic packaging is suitable for use with MAP, this helps Future Farm to reduce even further the carbon footprint of its products.

What’s Next?

Another alternative protein maker, Next Meats USA has begun production and distribution of their products, which originated in Japan, out of California.

Brendan Cravitz, CMO at Next Meats USA, says, “Our focus is to follow our mission at Next Meats of creating products and processes that put our planet first. In the U.S., we will continue this growth and evolution of our brand—producing delicious plant-based products but specifically for the North American palate and consumer, and now equally as important, utilizing sustainable packaging while also finding ways to reduce our carbon footprint.”

Future-Beef Grounded Packaging
Future Farm currently sells four products using the same sustainable packaging: plant-based ground (above), plant-based meatballs, plant-based patties, and plant-based links. Photo courtesy of Future Farm

Cravitz says they were looking for packaging materials that are recyclable. “We will be utilizing a laminate that not only reduces fossil fuel by 70% by using sugarcane but is recyclable in the PE stream (#4) as well as non-toxic inks.” The company focused on finding a partner that would meet the highest standards of environmental and social manufacturing, and Grounded Packaging fit that criteria.

“We are excited to have found a partner that offsets all carbon emissions created during production and throughout the logistics process by purchasing carbon credits. We looked for a partner that cares about their impact on the planet as much as we strive to at Next Meat—not just from general SDG statements but actually demonstrates by actions, [such as] removing trash and removing plastics from the ocean regularly, incorporating renewable and recyclable materials, and finding ways to offset carbon emissions,” he says.

Of course, selecting this type of packaging is not without its challenges. “The cost for many products that are generally better for our planet remains significantly higher than less sustainable products that impact our planet negatively,” Cravitz says. “While we are still in a nimble startup mode in North America, the main challenge is prioritizing both our Next Meats product and the packaging. This can mean potentially postponing larger marketing initiatives to start or adjusting other big picture plans so we can deliver a quality product in packaging that represents our brand.”

Cravitz says they attended many tradeshows from Plant Based World Expo in New York City to Pack Expo West in Southern California, and he noticed the pride of plant-based/vegan products/producers in their packaging is nearly as evident as the excitement about their actual products.

“It’s one of the first things you hear, let alone see when walking up to a booth,” he says. “On social media, consumers in North America are now more aware, vocal and looking for sustainable packaging and logistics. Sustainable is no longer enough. We need to strive for carbon-neutral at a minimum and ideally carbon negative as the end goal.

Footprint sustainable packaging
Footprint creates packaging products that aim to replace plastic in both performance and pricing. Photo courtesy of Footprint

When asked what tips he would offer other alternative protein manufacturers when it comes to selecting the packaging for products, Cravitz says:

  • Carbon neutral/negative (if possible) is a top priority. For our planet, for your brand and, in the end, for the consumer. Certified package providers are the way to go. Consider how to make it happen, even if simply using some sustainable materials to begin. A transition plan over time with an end goal is key.
  • Spend a lot of time in the freezer section or aisle—wherever your product will be. Look at your competitors. What do you like? What don’t you care for? Watch consumer actions. Take many photos and pick them apart to find what will make your product stand out.
  • Use quality packaging materials that are durable.
  • Product photography should not be underestimated. Find a photographer and food stylist (in our case) that can make your product(s) look amazing.
  • Attention to detail in branding and the overall design of the package is essential.
  • Not only do you want to separate yourself from others, but you want consumers to see your logo and color scheme clearly from a distance.