Modern food packaging—good or bad?

Variety of packaged products at a supermarket.
When one walks into a modern supermarket one faces an exhibit of some ten thousand packaged items—all gaily wrapped in plastic, metal, paper or wood."

What a contrast with the years ago when people went to small neighborhood stores!

Rarely were there several brands to select from—people just bought what the grocer had available.

Customers were courteously waited on by a clerk, who was usually the owner.

Flour and sugar were scooped and weighed, crackers came from the “cracker barrel,” and meat and cheese were cut to order.

Can you imagine modern shoppers in “advanced nations” still buying all their food like that? It does not seem likely, does it?

But why was the changeover to modern prepackaged foods necessary?

Has it been in your best interests as a consumer?

One big factor causing the switch to modern packaged foods is the movement of people away from small communities and farms where food is grown.

In the last hundred years or so, more and more people have migrated into large cities to work in factories and offices.

The pace of life has become faster and everyone expects speed and convenience even in opening a candy wrapper.

Prepackaged foods have proved beneficial in a number of ways in reaching these people living away from the farms.

Modern Packaging’s Beneficial Functions

Canned and bottled products put in a freezer.

For one thing, modern canning and freezing make it possible for many varieties of food to be kept for months and even years without fear of spoilage from disease-carrying organisms.

As packaged they can be shipped anywhere in the world, repeatedly handled by many prospective buyers and yet retain their wholesomeness.

Packaged goods are also convenient.

Premeasured containers of a certain food are the same size and so can be conveniently shipped, stacked, priced and stored.

In recent years packaging has produced additional conveniences.

Some cans today do not even need an opener since they have “peel open” lids.

Frozen “dinners” are both warmed and served in the tray-like container in which they come. “Boil-in-the-bag” vegetables and meats are cooked in hot water in the bag in which they are frozen.

Modern packaging performs other beneficial functions.

Printed wrappers and labels tell the customer what he will find inside, as well as the quantity and its cost.

There may also be recipes or directions for use of the food.

Packaging can also be decorative as well as functional.

Who has not seen a wine bottle package?

Placed right on the dinner table, it lends a certain atmosphere to any meal.

Jams and preserves often come in stylish glasses.

Cottage cheese and butter are sometimes packaged in plastic containers that do not detract from the appearance of the table.

Or, larger cans of coffee are colorfully striped like a decanter to blend with the decor of a modern kitchen.

But here is where you, the consumer, must use discernment. Why?

You may be tempted to make purchases of a product because of its container.

Modern packaging, you see, serves one more major purpose—whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is open to question. What is that other purpose?

The “Package Salesman”

The package of a Duzzit  multi- 10 purpose cloths.

Packaging is a salesman.

It must be.

You, the average customer, pass about 300 items per minute in a supermarket.

There is no salesclerk to recommend one to you over another.

Packaging itself must do the selling.

Somehow, it tries to stand out and say, ‘Buy me and not the other brand!’

Package design, then, must be clever, even alluring, urging you to buy.

And it does sell.

Studies show that about 70 percent of all decisions to make purchases are made after the customers are in the store.

Package designers appeal to your sense of “impulse buying.”

They change the shape of containers periodically for greater public appeal.

Packaging changes have almost become a sign of ‘progressive thinking.’

Some adjustments, of course, as we have seen, do provide you added conveniences.

The metal spout on salt containers, for example, aids in pouring.

But many changes are merely meant to capture your buying eye.

All such alterations are costly.

Dies and molds to manufacture a ‘prettier’ bottle are expensive.

Also, a new container may require new packaging machinery or it may create more waste during manufacturing.

It could be more difficult to ship.

Now, who do you think pays for all these changes?

You—the consumer, of course!

In fact, the cost of food packaging today may be as much as 24 percent of the total price of the product.

As a wise buyer, therefore, be sure that you are paying out money for food, not just for a container.

Do not be fooled by clever packaging techniques.

What should you do?

Be a Careful Shopper in the Packaging World

A lady checking out a magnum product.

While shopping, take time to read labels carefully.

Many buyers habitually reach for the same item whenever they shop without taking time to compare its price against contents.

This can be a costly mistake.

For instance, one food producer sold bottles with 15 ounces of pickles in them.

His production costs went higher, but the retail price of the pickles he sold stayed the same.

How was that possible?

Simple—the producer kept the same size bottle but only put it in 13-3/4 ounces of pickles.

Only those buyers who carefully read labels realized that they were getting fewer pickles but—paying the same price.

Other customers believe that they always save money when they purchase “giant,” “economy,” or “family” sizes.

When shopping it is good to ask: How much do I pay on, say, a per-ounce basis for the larger item?

In certain cases the smaller package is really more economical.

Obviously it takes time to make such comparisons.

While time is limited in the modern world, a few extra minutes to read packaging labels can save you money.

The numerous changes in design of packages have served to entice the consumer to buy.

At the same time this process has also contributed to what might be called the biggest problem created by the packaging industry—disposal of discarded wrappings.

Modern Packaging Pollution

A huge collection of used plastic bottles.

For decades people have been throwing away cans, bottles, cartons, wrappers, and so forth.

Now refuse has reached critical proportions, particularly in large cities.

Of course, the problem has spread far outside the big cities.

Discarded bottles and cans mar even back roads.

What can be done about the packaging disposal problem?

Many citizens, following on the trail of environmentalists, claim that litter would be greatly reduced if beverage companies would stop using ‘throw away’ containers.

They want to return to the old deposit-style bottles. Maybe you have heard this said.

But obviously more disposable containers are being made than in the past.

But why?

Because apparently that is what the public wants.

Despite what people say, their actions do not back up their claim about preferring returnable bottles.

A large percentage of litter found along roads is bottles that could be returned for a money deposit.

Perhaps you have heard others say that plastic should be limited as a packaging material since it does not naturally decay and therefore contributes to the litter problem.

There is some truth in this claim.

But, on the other hand, plastics do not constitute the hazard that broken glass does.

One plastic in particular has been strongly criticized for another reason.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) emits chlorine gas when it is burned.

Nevertheless, the amount of plastic being used is on the increase.

Without doubt many are baffled by the disposal problems created by it and other modern packaging.


The fact remains that today millions of people do not live in an agricultural society.

For them packaging has been good—by means of it they have been fed.

The problems, like refuse disposal, which packaging has brought with it, must be considered part of the price to be paid to accomplish this task.

It will no doubt persist until a better alternative is found.