Thinking inside the box

MARCH 23–NEW YORK–When milk in boxes first showed up on supermarket shelves about 20 years ago, American shoppers were suspicious. Unlike Europeans, they were slow to embrace aseptically packaged foods, which keep fresh without refrigeration for at least six months.

But now, buying liquid foods in a box is increasingly common.

Five years ago, the only aseptic products widely available in the United States were single-serving boxes of juice and block-shaped cartons of milk. Today, there are aseptic soups and broths; soy, grain and nut beverages; sports and nutrition drinks; tomato sauces and much more. Puddings, syrups, flavored milks and savory sauces, even liquid eggs, now come in boxes. Companies like Gerber Products, Dean Foods, Coca-Cola and Cadbury Schweppes have made significant investments in aseptic processing machinery, as have several contract packagers, like Jasper Products in Joplin, Missouri, and Steuben Foods in Elma, New York.

Aseptic packaging tends to cost more, but it also allows for more delicate processing of foods than do alternative methods like canning. As a result, aseptically packaged products are especially plentiful in high-end natural and epicurean food stores like Whole Foods Market, where shelves are stacked with boxes of roasted red pepper soup, hazelnut milk and loganberry juice.

“In the last three years, our soup offerings went from zero to 30 percent aseptic,” Mary Margaret Graham, national grocery buyer for Whole Foods (Austin, Texas) told The New York Times, adding that there’s a real taste advantage, and for that, some customers are willing to pay nearly double.

The products also offer more convenience, not only because they can be stored in the pantry unopened but also because leftovers can be refrigerated in the same package without the risk of spilling, discoloration or the “tinny” off-flavors caused when oxygen reacts with the metal in a can.

Alisa Smith, a Web producer in Santa Fe, New Mexico, says she buys soup, broth and oat milk in aseptic paperboard boxes because “I can pour some out, close it back up and put it in the fridge.”

The technology for commercial aseptic processing has been available for a half-century and took hold in Europe in the early 1960s, but it was not approved for food in the United States until 1981. Parmalat, the Italian conglomerate now in bankruptcy and embroiled in an accounting scandal, embraced the technology early and became the world’s most widely distributed brand of milk.

The process involves sterilizing the packaging and the food product separately and then filling and sealing the containers in a sterile environment. That allows the food to retain more color, texture, taste and nutrition than it does when subjected to the more heat-intensive conventional methods used in canning and bottling.

Manufacturers were slow to adopt aseptic technology in the United States because of high equipment costs and slow line speeds, and because the brick-shaped packaging was unfamiliar to American consumers.

But the cost of aseptic machinery has declined significantly in the last five years, while energy costs have gone up. “It takes less energy to run an aseptic plant,” said Andrew Jacobson, general manager of the nondairy division of the Hain Celestial Group, based in Melville, New York, which sells more than 100 aseptically packaged products, including Soy Dream and Rice Dream beverages and Imagine soups and broths.

And, of course, there is no need for refrigerated storage or refrigerated delivery trucks. “The return on capital is great if you can stand the initial investment,” which is $5 million to $7 million for a basic aseptic operation, Jacobson said. The major equipment suppliers, all based outside the United States, include Tetra Pak of Sweden, Krones of Germany, Shibuya Kogyo of Japan, Procomac and SIG Simonazzi of Italy, and Stork Food and Dairy Systems, a unit of Stork Group of the Netherlands.

The newest form of aseptic packaging uses a popular container – the plastic bottle – rather than the cardboard box. Plastic bottles “are generating a lot of excitement in the industry,” said Colleen Zammer, a food and beverage technology consultant at TIAX in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Five years ago, the Food and Drug administration approved the technology needed to put high-acid foods like cranberry juice into aseptic bottles rather than boxes, and last year it allowed aseptic bottling of low-acid foods like milk.

“Plastics are going to open up the market like never before,” Zammer said, because “no matter how good the product is, adults just don’t want to drink out of a box.”

In the last four years, Minute Maid, a subsidiary of Coca-Cola, and Mott’s, part of Cadbury Schweppes, have invested heavily in aseptic bottling operations for high-acid fruit drinks. Last year, Gerber Products, a unit of Novartis, started aseptically processing and packaging its high-acid baby foods in plastic tublike containers instead of glass jars.

“We looked at a lot of technologies, but aseptic was the most appropriate in terms of cost effectiveness and making parents’ lives easier by providing lighter containers that won’t break, as well as providing a good-tasting, shelf-stable product,” said David Yates, Gerber senior vice president for North America.


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