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Advanced Autoclave Food Processing Gains Foothold with U.S. Consumers

Retort packaging — the sterile, autoclaved, highly shelf-stable sealed food pouches familiar as the modern military rations (or “MRE,” for “meal read-to-eat”) — is gaining traction in the consumer food industry. UK premium food manufacturer Waitrose recently announced that it was switching over to retortable cartons for its pasta sauce. Retortable pouches and cartons offer a space and energy efficient alternative to glass jars and tin cans and have a smaller environmental impact in both their manufacture and disposal.

Despite benefits to the environment, Americans have been reluctant to buy food in pouches. In the United States, Campbell Soup Company has embraced the stand-up pouch as a packaging design meant to attract health-conscious Millennials to its products. Three years later, response from consumers has been weak. Other manufacturers, like Trader Joe’s, have made the leap with an additional baby step of packaging pouches for heat-and-eat meals inside lightweight boxes for a more familiar appeal.

“Retort flavor” remains the biggest struggle in the wider adoption of this packaging technology. The retort — the food manufacturer’s version of an autoclave — uses pressure and heat to kill microbes. Unfortunately, it kills flavor and texture too. Retort flavor is actually no flavor at all. To compensate, food scientists have developed flavor additives that can survive the high temperatures and processing time in the retort. These flavorings are engineered to mimic the sweet, the salty, the spicy, and the fat that we expect to taste.

They might seem like an odd couple, but the household pantry and the U.S. military have a long, and often surprising, history. To learn much, much more, give a listen to Episode 186 of the popular design podcast 99% Invisible: Episode 186: War and Pizza.