The 700 Chocolate Bars that Could Change Packaging
Deep in a Swiss lab, these chocolate bars are primed to save tons of packaging.
It might sound like the indoor farm of a chocoholic’s fantasies, but this is not a magic recipe for cultivating ready-made confectionery.
What’s being propagated here is knowledge. Knowledge that could ultimately help save tons of packaging every year.
Here’s why: some products are more sensitive than others to elements such as moisture, oxygen and light.
Not enough is known about the extent to which these factors affect sensitive products over the course of their shelf lives.
The lack of precise data available, as well as the methods for gathering it, can lead manufacturers to overestimate the level of protection a product’s packaging needs to provide.
The problem? Generally speaking, the higher the barrier a packaging material offers, the more complicated its structure and the potentially greater its environmental footprint.
The more accurately you can predict a product’s sensitivity over time, the more easily you can identify optimal packaging that will still keep it fresh.
“There’s almost no such thing as a perfect barrier when it comes to packaging,” says Robert Witik, the scientist leading the study at the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne.
“People may think no oxygen gets through plastic, for example, but different types of plastic are actually permeable to different degrees.
“One of our goals here is to identify the critical point at which the amount of oxygen a product consumes begins to have an impact on its taste and quality.”
In other words, how much oxygen does the chocolate bar need to react with before it goes off?
Before they could begin their tests, Robert’s team had the painstaking task of wrapping each of the 700 individual chocolate bars in different packaging materials with varying properties.
“We’ve divided the bars into groups and packed them under different storage conditions,” he explains.
“Some are wrapped in packaging with a high oxygen barrier, while others are wrapped in packaging with a low oxygen barrier.
“We’ve also adjusted the level of oxygen inside the packaging, so some bars have more oxygen between chocolate and wrapper than others.”
What doesn’t vary in this experiment is the light, which the chocolate is exposed to continuously, and at the same intensity.
“In normal circumstances the product would never be subjected to this much brightness,” says Robert. “This is an accelerated situation.”
Providing packaging engineers with an improved means of selecting material to ensure a product’s quality and safety over a particular shelf life is one aspect of this research.
Challenging conventional wisdom is another.
The scientists are also trying to encourage product managers to question the duration of the shelf life they’ve assigned to a particular product in the first place.
Why? Let’s say a product is given a shelf life of 24 months, but in reality people consume it within nine.
The chances are it’s being ‘over packed’ in an unnecessarily high level of protection.
Shortening its shelf life, and adjusting its associated packaging requirements, can be a simple but highly effective way of improving its environmental performance.
All of this work contributes to Nestlé’s public commitment to improve the environmental performance of its packaging, with a pledge to avoid the use of at least 100,000 tonnes by 2017, while guaranteeing the safety and quality of its products.
Although at first glance, wrapping up 700 chocolate bars and leaving them on a shelf for months may not appear to be contributing to this target, the long-term gain is clear.
The closer Nestlé can get to predicting exactly how certain products will react to different conditions, the less packaging those products will require.
So while scientists may not have a formula for growing your own confectionery, they might have found a way to ensure some of your favorite products are more sustainable in future.
It’s hard to imagine even the most dedicated of chocolate lovers being disappointed by that.