Think Health, Think Glass
WHY GLASS IS THE HEALTHY, SUSTAINABLE PACKAGING CHOICE
Glass is a material we’ve relied on for generations – and with growing concern over how newer packaging solutions may impact on our own health and the health of the planet, glass remains just as relevant as ever. When we look at how to make healthier choices around our food, the choice of packaging material and its role in ensuring food safety and preservation is key.
Want to be sure the products you’re buying last as long as possible? The choice of packaging material matters. The right packaging can protect food or drink from microplastics and chemical leaching that could be harmful to health. Packaging can also extend the preservation period of the flavour, fizz and aroma. Glass checks the box on all these criteria while meeting relevant health implications for the proper care of the product, human health and care for the environment.
As a professor in Food Science and Technology from Spain’s Autonomous University of Barcelona, Carolina Ripollés is a food scientist and expert in food safety and public health. Here, she breaks down how packaging interacts with our food, and how glass keeps us healthy.
Welcome, Carolina! Tell us a bit about your background – what makes you a ‘friend of glass’?
Since I was a little girl, I’ve always liked to ask ‘why.’ Food systems are a big part of how we live and stay healthy, and I find it fascinating how we can find better, healthier ways of improving our current systems. I chose to study food safety, evaluating how different contact materials interact with our food.
We all know food packaging has evolved very quickly in recent years. For a time, glass and wood –the predominant packaging a hundred years ago – were being replaced by plastic. However, nowadays, the possibilities of recycling, reuse and low quantity of foreign elements in glass have brought it back to the forefront for environmental and health reasons.
IMPORTANCE OF PACKAGING MATERIAL FOR FOOD SAFETY
We know people are becoming more focused on the importance of sustainability in their daily lives – how does a healthy lifestyle fit into this?
Research shows we’re more likely to prioritise our health, well-being and the environment than before, and consider these in our purchasing decisions. For many, sustainability is an important factor in product selection – even before price – and we’re cutting back on disposal packaging, making extra effort to take empty containers to the bottle bank, or limiting how much energy we use.
But there’s a long way to go – many consumers simply don’t recycle materials they use every day. With 8 billion of us on earth, if every person throws away 10 grams of plastic a day, this adds up to 80,000 tonnes of daily plastic waste – or a massive 29 million tonnes of waste yearly! It’s not just a plastic problem: the same would happen with any packaging left in the environment. But recycling in a circular economy can solve this, and glass is a model example: it can be infinitely recycled and reused, it’s less likely to fly away if scattered, and people already recycle it. And it’s a natural, inert single-layer material.
We could rephrase the reflection on healthy living: does living a sustainable lifestyle make us healthier? It’s complex. In my opinion, sustainability can bring us closer to a healthier life because thinking sustainably implies greater awareness of our actions. In this case, one of the links between sustainability and health is food, and the environment is part of that. If you’re aware of the impact your choices have, you will always lead a much fuller life and take control of your actions rather than let them control you. This only has positive effects and is the best form of personal well-being.
How does this link to how we think about packaging and the choices we make for everyday products, like food or drink?
Sustainability and packaging are closely linked. As consumers, we know disposable packaging waste and food waste are big concerns, and we can play our own part in living more sustainably – and many of us feel compelled to do so. Yet packaging touches on a range of concerns, from how food, drink and other everyday products are protected from degrading, to how much packaging itself can influence the product inside over time, and then to how we dispose of packaging. Decisions over buying (or boycotting) certain packaging and committing to recycling are individual decisions. This means it depends on the motivation and social awareness of each individual. We know consumers have the perception that glass or paper-based cartons are the most sustainable packaging options, while plastic bottles are the least eco-friendly. At the same time, glass packaging gives a sense of product quality, and provides a guarantee of hygiene, flavour preservation and ability to be fully recycled. If we associate a packaging with higher product quality, relating it with a greater ecological value by being able to recycle it completely, we’re already halfway there in raising awareness of the need to recover waste and getting people to act on it.
Why do you think consumers continue to rely on glass?
Beyond reduced waste, glass also stands for hygiene and taste preservation. Generally, glass indicates health and overall quality. It preserves food better, along with its nutritional properties for extended periods. Glass is completely inert and highly hygienic. Inertness means no outside elements can penetrate the container, making it resistant to oxidisation and CO2 as well as chemicals. This makes glass great for stocking up in the pantry or fridge. What’s more, transparent glass makes it easy to see when food is about to go off, helping to cut back on food waste.
BENEFITS OF GLASS FOR FOOD SAFETY
In your opinion, what are the main benefits of glass packaging in terms of food safety?
For brands and retailers, there are many things to consider on packaging between a product’s concept and us picking it off the shelves:
- Is the product safe in its packaging – and will it stay safe during transport and storage?
- Does it meet international rules on product safety, like EU REACH rules on chemical safety (from which glass packaging is exempt) or US FDA rules on food safety?
- Is it resistant to breakages?
- Does it look good?
All of these matter. One of the main aspects to consider is the contact between food and its container. We should look for packaging that doesn’t leach any chemicals into the food or alter taste – because it turns out you really are what you eat.
Ultimately, glass is made from ingredients found in nature, and needs no other ingredients, chemicals, or plastic linings to protect our food. So the main advantage of glass in terms of food safety is that no chemical residues are transmitted to the food or absorbed into the packaging itself, guaranteeing preservation of the products inside, as well as their safety. If lids are made of a suitable material, contents are sealed and isolated from the outside – so food isn’t contaminated.
Why are we seeing more people talking about this link between food packaging and food safety?
Recently, chemical risks linked to packaging have been under scrutiny. Food contact materials are being heavily researched as chemicals present in them can migrate into our food. For example, a new systematic review published in the Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition journal (Geueke et al., 2022) found there are 14,153 chemicals that can come into direct contact with food. These could migrate into the contents of the containers, increasing our exposure to these chemicals – and more than two-thirds were found in plastics. In contrast, glass and ceramics were determined the safest option for the food sector as they detected the lowest number of chemicals, related to the low chemical complexity of these materials.
It is important to note that the chemical complexity of food contact materials is directly related to their safety (Fenner and Scheringer, 2021). Why? Because the larger the amount of chemicals present in a specific material is, the more difficult it becomes to evaluate all the components thoroughly. Reducing the chemical complexity of food contact materials means all chemical components can be evaluated, bringing us one step closer to food safety.
Then, from a biological perspective, concerns revolve around the possibility of certain microorganisms growing in packaged food. This could lead to faster food waste, or even foodborne diseases. Whether we talk of chemical or biological risks, both situations would imply a significant economic loss and a decrease in trust towards brands. Because of this, using packaging materials that are impermeable and single layer, such as glass, are key to minimise the risk of bacterial growth and harmful chemicals.
Is there any food or drink that requires glass packaging material? If so, why?
There’s a very wide variety of materials that can be used for food or drink packaging – but if we evaluate which can be considered the best option by both professionals and consumers for certain types of products, it is undoubtedly glass. Examples of this would be fermented beverages, such as wine or sake; distilled beverages; all kinds of preserves; even products aimed at young children, like baby food. There are several reasons for this, among them the hygienic and safe aspects of glass, as well as its relationship with the quality of the product.
We saw 2022 celebrated as the UN International Year of Glass. Glass has accompanied civilisations for generations – as a scientist, do you think glass will continue to be the packaging of the future?
To know whether glass is fit for the future, we must consider consumers’ views on sustainability, their environmental awareness, and more importantly, their behaviour! Behaviour is key and will be the determining factor. In my opinion, glass will undoubtedly continue to be a packaging material that is valued for its high quality and safety. This means that our food and drink stays fresher for longer, the risk of absorbing chemicals or other contaminants is reduced, and the likelihood of our food staying safe and healthy is significantly increased.