Aseptic packaging is a technique wherein the contents of a package and the packaging itself are sterilised separately, and then the contents are placed in the package and sealed under a controlled, sterile environment. Aseptic packaging contrasts with techniques where the contents and packaging are sterilised together.
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Ten years ago, few items in the local grocery store were sold in aseptic packaging. The most common was the juice box and the milk carton. Now, soups, sauces, broths, soy and nut products, pancake batter, pudding and premixed eggs, as well as fruit, nutrition and sports drinks, are all marketed for the individual consumers. Restaurants use an even wider range of aseptically packaged food products.
Aseptic packaging was developed in Europe during the 1960s. Approved for use in the United States in 1981, adoption of aseptic packaging was slow because of the cost of the equipment and public reluctance to try food introduced in a different manner. In 1999, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved plastic bottles for aseptic packaging of high-acid fruit drinks. The FDA then allowed low-acid drinks, such as milk, in 2003.
Originally, the only packaging available for aseptic processing was lined paperboard cartons. Tetra Pak, the best selling producer of aseptic packaging and processing equipment, offers more than 150 different shapes of cartons. Plastic bottles are becoming more popular, especially because they are less expensive than the cartons. Tubes, pouches and plastic cups are also found more often in stores, as the shape of the container is tailored to customer needs.
For a company to offer aseptic packaging for its products, it must invest in a new processing line, which means a substantial price tag for new equipment, installation and training. However, once in place, the operating costs are significantly lower. Aseptic packaging requires less energy, manufacturers no longer have to add vitamins and minerals lost from the food during the canning process, and refrigerated transport is not necessary, because all aseptically packaged foods are shelf-stable.
While aseptic packaging requires a large upfront investment in packaging and food processing equipment, it has many benefits. The first is that, once packaged, the food does not need to be refrigerated until it has been opened. Second, sterilising the food separately from the packaging allows the food to be handled more delicately, preserving flavours and textures that are lost in processes such as canning. Third, once the package is open, the food can be refrigerated without changing containers.
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