Editor’s note: For an industry insider’s look at microwave technology trends, Refrigerated & Frozen Foods turned to Timothy Bohrer, founder of Pac Advantage Consulting, LLC, Chicago. A 30-year-plus industry veteran, Bohrer was a featured speaker at the International Microwave Power Institute’s 43rd annual microwave power symposium this July in Washington, D.C. He addressed the topic, “Microwave Packaging: Past, Present & Projected.”

Refrigerated & Frozen Foods: What trends and technologies do you see in refrigerated and frozen food categories? 

Timothy Bohrer: Several trends here are encouraging and exciting. Continued growth in foods designed to only be heated in the microwave, tells me that the question of whether microwave-only foods can succeed has been answered emphatically in the positive. That’s really important. It opens up the door to more innovation and we don’t have to settle for sub-optimized performance while balancing conventional and microwave performance.We’ve seen an expansion of convenient hand-held food products that use active packaging – meaning susceptors, shielding or both. Plus, there’s been the proliferation of what people are calling “steaming” packages, which are really packs with limited, but controlled venting of air pressure and steam in the heating cycle. Processors have extended their offerings from relatively simple products like one or more servings of frozen vegetables to more complex side dishes and entrées. Venting pouches and lidding solutions for rigid tray packages undergird this rapid growth.
Cooking products – for which browning or crisping are not needed – are especially suited to these approaches. These microwave steam products not only benefit from moisture retention, but also from faster cooking – because the bulk of the energy used to vaporize moisture is contained in the package and can be used to heat the food.

R&FF: So it’s a case of right place, right time for these new offerings?

Bohrer: There are probably several reasons why the time is right for these products. Consumers are being told to eat more vegetables but are also being advised not to drown them in boiling water. It’s ideal to steam or microwave them, as this enhances nutrient retention and can improve texture.
Convenient self-venting packages have made it easy to just put a pouch in the microwave oven for a few minutes with no additional attention needed, which plays to consumer interest in convenience and time saving.  Finally, there is growing realization that microwave cooking can save energy compared to many conventional food preparation techniques.

R&FF: Processors have extended the flexible bag microwave steaming application to refrigerated produce as well as a range of frozen items including pasta, seafood and mashed potatoes. What do you notice about the technologies involved?

Bohrer: In the end, there are a limited number of basic ways to create self-venting features in pouches or sealed trays.
Fully sealed packages generally depend on an area of the pouch or lidstock with a feature that releases at some pre-determined combination of temperature and pressure. This prevents excessive pressure from developing, which would result in uncontrolled package rupture or seal failure.
Solutions can be as simple as deliberately weakened seals, peelable sealant formulations that soften at expected cook temperatures or perforations covered by removable tapes. There are more complex variations as well, even to the point of one-way valves that close when temperature and pressure is reduced.   

R&FF: When it comes to the flexible bag market, are you still seeing new technologies continuing to enter the market or are we seeing the same technologies – now simply being applied to new product categories?

 Bohrer: We’re seeing an increase in the value of products packaged for microwaving and accordingly, we’re seeing more complicated and sophisticated structures. For example, there are more packages with reverse printing and upscale graphics to portray a premium positioning.
I think there will be more “hybrid” technology entries. Perhaps these will offer combinations of several technologies – especially as content weights increase and you have more challenges to balance cooking between components such as vegetables and proteins.

R&FF: We’re seeing microwave packaging technologies from North America, Europe and Asia. Any thoughts on such global market competition?

Bohrer: What stands out to me is the seemingly simultaneous global nature in the growth of the “steamer” packages. Sure, there were pockets of activity before, with the United Kingdom’s refrigerated ready meal market probably leading the way. However, it’s been interesting to watch suppliers and processors extend the technology into frozen and even some shelf-stable formats.
Meanwhile, there’s been a sort of “rediscovery” that steaming some foods is a very good way to prepare them. It’s terrific for our industry that packaging can simplify what is otherwise a somewhat cumbersome preparation method using conventional appliances and cookware.
To your point about the various global markets, there are ample [packaging] solutions to choose from in all geographic regions, which also is positive for food companies interested in entering the sector with new products.

R&FF: We’re seeing more microwaveable products involved uncooked foods. What are your thoughts about this growing market?

Bohrer: I’m not surprised. Some foods don’t freeze well after cooking and their texture and flavor take a real beating in subsequent reheating. However, because we are now dealing with primary cooking – rather than heating – processors must be more careful when it comes to food component handling and packaging operations. Most important, though, is to ensure that the product reaches proper temperatures when consumers cook it. 
You need robust technologies to work in different ovens with varying power levels and [power] distributions. Moreover, processors must ensure that directions are prominent and clear so consumers can and will reasonably follow them.
These products may well benefit from hybrid packages, where supplementary or redirected heating from susceptors or field modification elements can help ensure the most critical components are properly cooked.

R&FF:  We’ve now seen ConAgra apply the steam-cooking concept to frozen entrees in rigid plastic tray. What interests you about this approach?

Bohrer: The technology is somewhat similar to the flexible approach in that (1) both take advantage of containing the thermal energy in the vaporized water in the package and (2) they aren’t aimed at foods that have to brown or crisp.
That said, ConAgra’s rigid approach is different in several important ways.  First, it is really much more like steaming, where the food is held over a hot liquid and then vapor condenses on the food to supplement direct microwave heating. And when heating is done, the consumer is responsible for applying the resulting hot sauce. The relatively simple manipulations may make the consumer feel like they are really cooking, which can be advantageous. This approach also offers the option of using all or part of the sauce as desired. By comparison, competitive offerings – where you have all the ingredients in a pouch – are hard pressed to easily offer this option. In some cases, the pouch approach also can result in texture degradation.
The success of this rigid package also is interesting in that it has the appearance of being a lot more packaging intensive than other offerings. But its success proves once again that consumers will pay for and use solutions that they perceive to offer convenience, quality and control.

R&FF: Consumer interest in on-the-go foods and convenience means new product developers are quite active with sandwiches, pizzas and other specialty bread-based products. Do these packages use susceptor technology? What advances have you noticed in the field?

Bohrer: Companies are working hard to expand the numbers and types of foods that work well in a microwave. Where dough is involved, susceptor technology almost always has a helpful role to play. A lot of patent and commercial activity involves insulation approaches, integrated venting to ensure crispness and improved opening features to increase convenience.
It’s no secret that consumers are looking for the toasted style sandwiches popularized in quick-service restaurants and other restaurant settings. Retail packaged food companies believe there is an opportunity to give consumers the same sandwich options anywhere they have access to a microwave. Indeed, that’s why you see more microwaveable sandwich products including hot dogs, Panini-style sandwiches, subs and even grilled cheese sandwiches.

R&FF: What do you think of the microwave pizza market?

Bohrer: I think there always will be a search for a larger microwave pizza – at least up to a size that would fit in most medium and large ovens. This has been something of an elusive goal. Moreover, to get there means processors and packaging suppliers will need to combine food formulation with a clever use of susceptors. In some cases, too, it could require patterned thick foil elements.
The combinations of shielding and browning are intriguing, as they offer more degrees of freedom in treating different parts of complex foods differently. They also can create more uniform results in the huge range of consumer ovens.

R&FF: Where can microwave steam cook technologies improve during the next three to five years?

Bohrer: I think there are several areas that make sense to pursue. Just consider that handling these hot pouches requires some care. I see room for improvements related to convenient holding, opening and pouring.
Moving towards more complex foods, where some of the components benefit from high moisture environments and others need dehydration for proper texture and flavor development will require hybrid packages. There are a few published patent applications considering solutions to this, but there seems to be plenty of room for new thoughts and approaches.

R&FF: Has microwave susceptor technology reached its full maturity level or is there room for growth?

Bohrer: I was involved in commercializing the first disposable susceptor package and – just about when people start thinking the market has plateaued – another clever introduction occurs to push it even further. There still are many foods that have yet to take advantage of the speed and quality advantages offered by susceptor, shielding or combination packaging.
More control over heating levels has always been a goal, and there are plenty of patents pursuing that control. That is probably a key improvement area that would unlock another large increment of growth.

 R&FF: What did you tell microwave convention attendees about future microwave packaging applications?

Bohrer: I suggested that combining quite different foods into a single “complete meal” package represents significant hurdles. However that type of approach would be welcomed by consumers because it would alleviate the need to juggle multiple packages in and out of the microwave with different cook times and potentially different power levels.
Many applications will require different packaging, in both passive and active formats. Some would combine steaming with browning and crisping – in the same package – to deliver more complex meal solutions.

R&FF: You mentioned browning and crisping. What’s been happening there?

 Bohrer: High moisture breaded products have presented difficulties for quite some time. However, I am confident that more latitude in susceptor control – coupled with innovative breading and coating technology – can significantly advance the performance here. Although these are isolated cases, we’ve seen several successful large microwaveable raw dough pies, involving both sweet and savory varieties.

R&FF: How do you see the broader market evolving? What are the biggest challenges ahead?

Bohrer: Food companies will continue to expand their understanding of how foods interact with microwave radiation and innovate around ingredients and food fabrication methods. To the extent they develop close partnerships with highly capable microwave packaging providers, new product/package combinations will result that enable entirely new categories to benefit from the speed, convenience and energy savings of microwave cooking, and with high quality.
My challenge to the food companies in the audience at IMPI was to think about the foods or food combinations that they don’t think will work in the microwave. Sit down with a microwave packaging supplier and ask them “why not?” I also think processors should be prepared to bring their best food innovators along and see what can be done together. There is an opportunity to not only compete with conventional oven cooking, but also with the other channels in which consumers purchase foods. Prepared foods offering restaurant quality at a lower price and with greater convenience can contribute in important ways to revenue and profit growth for the prepared food retail value chain.  Microwave packaging coupled with food innovation has delivered on this promise before and is fully capable of continuing to do so.  I am very bullish on these opportunities.

Timothy Bohrer, Pac Advantage Consulting LLC, works with both flexible and rigid structures in plastic, paper and composite packaging and the materials that form the foundation of these package types. Readers may contact him at (773) 268-2232 or by e-mail at tim@pacadv.com

“We’re seeing an increase in the value of products packaged for microwaving and accordingly, we’re seeing more complicated and sophisticated structures.”
– Timothy Bohrer, Pac Advantage Consulting

Honors for Southern Specialties, Heinz microwave packages
New microwave products from Southern Specialties Inc., Pompano Beach, Fla., and H.J. Heinz Co., Pittsburgh, were among those honored during the Flexible Packaging Association’s (FPA) 53rd annual Flexible Packaging Achievement Awards Competition this spring. FPA’s 2009 award winners included:

Product: Southern Selects asparagus
Award(s): Highest Achievement and Gold awards for packaging excellenceDescription: “This package improves the way fresh asparagus is sold in retail stores and the way it is prepped and cooked by the consumer. Clean asparagus is vacuum skinned, which improves shelf life more than traditional packaging methods, and enables consumers to quickly steam the asparagus in the microwave. This package also provides consumers with a more energy efficient alternative to boiling water.”
Supplier: Sealed Air Corp., Cryovac Food Packaging Div.

Product: Ore-Ida Steam n’ Mash mashed potatoes
Award(s): Silver award for packaging excellence
Description: “Package combines a high performance sealant and self-venting technology for a solution that goes directly from freezer to microwave and cooks the product without any additional steps. This package meets the demands of frozen food distribution, holds up to the extended cook-cycle and safely vents excess steam to provide perfectly steamed potatoes right out of the microwave.”
Supplier: Alcan Packaging Food Americas