Food Texture and Packaging – 3 minute read
When describing food, customers have always used color, size, and taste as the central defining attributes. In conversation, a food item can be characterized as sweet, bitter, sour, spicy, firm, tender, or as colorful.
One primary physical attribute almost always gets ignored, even though it is the best possible way to define how a food item feels in the mouth. That attribute is texture.
Importance of Food Texture for The Consumer’s Experience
Texture in food, much like texture in clothing, is determined by how an item feels on touch (this time in the mouth), hence variations like crunchy, squishy, rough, soft and more.
As with many other food attributes, customers associate changes in food texture with changes in food quality, thereby underscoring its importance as a sales driver. For food producers, this has resulted in a frantic effort to improve and preserve food texture for longer, right from production until the shelf.
Challenges for Preserving Food Texture
As with any other production effort in the food industry, preserving food texture is faced with several challenges, further discussed below.
Producers work hard to create, test-run, and introduce new technologies to help preserve food texture. However, the demand for unique and lasting textures seems to be moving faster.
Studies show that food demand is expected to grow significantly in the coming years, with Technomic Research capping the growth at 12% per year. This growth is attributed to easier access, backed by a global influx of food delivery services.
In a culture that is better informed about food, and where every aspect of food is often scrutinized, this could put producers at risk of losing millions of customers.
For a while, the main problem for food producers was maintaining food quality until consumers made a purchase. Various production methods were thus modified and streamlined to minimize that issue. However, food texture preservation is a whole other beast. Different variables affect food texture, some more complex than others. Some variables, such as slight changes in the raw ingredients, can become hard to manage. This issue is especially real if industry rules are banning or limiting the use of the ideal ingredient. Others, such as biochemical reactions that slowly affect how food feels, require specific, custom-engineered solutions that can disorganize a whole production chain.
Food producers and manufacturers are working on and embracing some unique solutions to help combat the industry-wide problem of texture preservation. While there are many such solutions, the three listed below show the most promise and are among the most popular.
High-Pressure Processing (HPP)
High-Pressure Processing has been available since the 1990s but has only come into common use in recent years as food producers look to improve shelf life. HPP has already won over both food producers and customers for its ability to keep food items (including specialty food items) fresh for way longer than usual without altering their taste, flavor, color composition and most importantly, texture.
Previously, the most popular preservation method was heating. Heating always altered the texture of food items, destroying part of their identity in exchange for an extra few days of shelf life. According to experts, subjecting a food item to HPP can extend its shelf life by nearly 80 days.
That’s because HPP subjects a food item to constant targeted pressure of between 100 and 800 MPa, a level of pressure only felt at the bottom of the ocean. The pressure immobilizes pathogens to incompetence, extending shelf life in the process.
So far, most food producers have already incorporated HPP into their processes. Owning an HPP machine isn’t as cheap; the average starting price for anyone looking to have one to themselves is a hefty 3 million dollars. Currently, that price tag is not proving to be a hindrance; most HPP units in use are co-owned and used by more than one client. They are thus reducing their cost per owner
The HPP process involves a pressure chamber into which newly packaged products are immersed and then subjected to pressure from all sides for a while. The pressure works not by killing pathogens like bacteria, but by rendering them useless and harmless for a while.
Sensory Testing and Texture Analysis
Two other solutions to food texture loss that food companies are embracing include sensory testing and texture analysis. Either of these solutions can be used individually or combined. Sensory testing involves sample consumers who are employed to taste a food item and gauge its texture. This method is backed by the human brain’s ability to define textures through taste. The results can be directly used by food companies to mark a product as ready for sale or not. Texture analysis, on the other hand, uses scientific data about the ideal characteristics of a particular texture, and gauges that against the new product textures for comparison.
While both techniques are gaining popularity, experts recommend using them together for better results. Companies that employ this strategy are generating results from each method on the same product. They can then correlate them to produce a formula that can be uploaded into existing texture testing software to make identifying the wrong texture easier.
Various food companies are also making joint efforts with other members of the food supply chain to create food texture preservation solutions that work across the board. The most notable, so far, has been with food packaging service providers and food suppliers. Together they are creating better recipes and more suitable packaging that can better maintain food texture all through production to consumption.
Each player in the supply chain is making recommendations to the others about what would be more ideal. Thus, production companies can make changes to their recipes or develop packaging that’s more protective of food texture, while suppliers can modify their handling and storage technology.
Some companies are already seeing success! Ingredion, a major food producer, has already seen positive results with its new starch-based texturizers for food toppings. This product was created after consultation with food suppliers on better texture preservation techniques.