The Latest In Active Food Labels

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In 2014 a lot have been written about labels and what information and how detailed they should give the consumer. In printing there have been various developments. But for me far more interesting are the active labels. The ones which are able to supply information via smartphones and above all the ones which incorporate sensors warning the consumer when a perishable is off.

An analyst of market research company Canadean argues that using data exchange technology like near field communication (NFC) to link information about freshness with colour-changing labels is a promising future concept. Packaging that extends shelf life and uses visual displays to indicate best-before or use-by dates with colour-changing labels, for example, can encourage more purchase occasions in a category where consumers are often sceptical of claims on shelf life.

Data on how fresh the bread is could be detected by the NFC technology to spur a colour change in the label

Data on how fresh the bread is could be detected by NFC technology to spur a colour change in the label

He takes bakery manufacturers as an example and claims that they could, for example, link data to bread staling using NFC (near field communication), a data recognition technology commonly used for mobile phone devices. The opportunities here are to use NFC for colour-changing indications for when bread is at its freshest, then changing when it’s still good, and finally when the bread goes stale. This would be done either by technology to track the date or preferably through air exposure and an analysis of the breakdown of bread.

It is the use of NFC that would allow things like colour-changing inks to be used more across food, going further than just responses to the calculated estimation of the shelf life or changes in temperature, but actually an analysis of the product itself.

In this light we can see the importance of the introduction of Sunlight Inks (photochromic) by Chromatic Technologies for such applications as paper, film and pressure-sensitive labels. Sunlight Inks are a breakthrough in chemistry that now offer the first photochromic inks that provide (1) fast kinetics which turn on rapidly when sunlight hits it, (2) repeatability which enables the ink to turn “on and off” forever, (3) a broad colour spectrum, as well as (4) durability in the sun.
Sunlight Inks can be applied to a label or to the packaging itself.

Here is a selection of the latest developments. Be aware that smart-packaging and smart labels inhabit functions that likely only will be used by a restricted number of consumers. Innovations in packaging, particularly the smart ones, will not always appeal to everyone.

Touchcode ink technology
Touchcode is a new communication standard that makes objects smart by creating a piece of the internet inside every printed product. Touchcode is a highly secure printed conductive ink signature embedded in packaging, labels and other objects that a smartphone or other sensing device can detect through capacitive touch.

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Touchcode is a technology similar to QR-codes, but it works without the smartphone camera. It is an invisible electronic code printed on paper, cardboard, film or labels. The consumer just has to put the product on the display of his smartphone/tablet/multitouch device to read the data.

TouchCode can be directly printed onto the packaging. It represents a very significant bridge between print and digital in the packaging and label space. Touch Code is very suitable for label manufacturing as well.

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Sun Chemical, a supplier of conductive inks, claims that Touchcode is a great step towards engaging an interaction with consumers. The company states that it is able to give brand owners a chance to interact with consumers in a way that has never been done before.

By combining Sun Chemical’s expertise in electronic materials with T+Ink’s interactive innovations, T+Sun, as a result, offers conductive ink solutions to make packaging and labels communicate, engage customers, and manage inventory systems.
T+mold designs, develops and markets moulded plastic smart surfaces that replace the wires in products. The T+mold technology can create thin, lightweight and flexible circuits and switches that greatly enhance a packaging’s functionality at a significantly reduced cost, size and weight.

Touchcode can be created on everyday printers without having to retool and reconfigure production chains, and is backward compatible with any device that has a capacitive touchscreen with multi-touch capability.

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While this technology certainly won’t replace burgeoning communications protocols like NFC, it’s safe to assume that it’s compelling enough to become a standard for consumers the world over.

In-mould labels
Digital watermarking offers the next generation in machine-readable images. The progression is from bar codes to QR (quick-response) codes to digital watermarks.
Digital watermarking is an imaging technology that embeds machine-readable images within the graphics. Those machine-readable images are not legible to the human eye. Thus, the brand keeps its design clean and retains its brand equity. The embedded imaging technology is not patented or proprietary.

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Watermarking technology can be embedded in standard pressure-sensitive labels, but the labels can be removed from the product and detract from the product’s perceived value.
In contrast when using IML (in-mould labelling) the watermark is embedded in the product, and is permanently attached.

SussexIM claims to have numerous product decoration capabilities available and has partnered with InkWorks in using digital in-mould labels (IML) with watermarks. Digital watermarking for in-mould labels (IMLs) use engineered resins such as ABS.

Cryopak K1 temperature indicator
In perishable supply chains, whether operating for pharmaceutical, medical or food products, it is imperative to know that the products have been kept within the required temperature ranges.

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The term ‘temperature indicator’ is mostly associated with chemical based, time vs temperature or irreversible labels. In contrast Cryopak’s new ‘K1’ is an electronic temperature indicator. An electronic alert indicator with the option of one or two alarm thresholds, the K1 brings the reliability of electronics to the world of temperature indicators.
The option to have two alarm thresholds is significant as temperature indicators normally have one threshold only, meaning that in the past two indicators were needed. One for over temperature and one for under temperature.

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Programming of the K1 is done to the customers specification, with an operating range between -40°C to 80°C there are many options with this device. Start delay, to allow the device to acclimatise to shipment conditions, and LED alarm delay can be set – making the K1 as flexible as your average data logger, but at a fraction of the cost.

Bump Mark
Solvegia Pakštaité, a graduate from Brunel University, won a James Dyson award for a food label design to communicate when perishable food has gone off.

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The labels are filled with gelatine. Gelatine is a natural substance and reacts to factors such as temperature, oxygen and sunlight in the same way as food, and if attached to fresh food as a sealed label, it mimics the food’s process of decay. When the product inside the packaging is fresh, the gelatine in the label stays solid. But as the food starts to go off, the gelatine breaks down and becomes a liquid, making the label bumpy.

Small and triangular in design, the bio-reactive Bump Mark is designed to be stuck on to the packaging at the time the food is packaged. Bump Mark is made up of four layers: a bumpy sheet of plastic is covered by a squidgy layer of gelatine and sandwiched between two sealing layers of plastic film.

The label is said to be accurate with any type of food. All that has to be done is to adjust the concentration of the gelatine formula to the packaged food.
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Pakštaité gives an example: “Say you want to put Bump Mark on a pack of strawberries, you’d estimate how many days they’d last at the optimum temperature and match the gelatine formula so it would also last the same amount. The more gelatine per water in the formula, the more bonds there are, so the longer it will take for the gelatine to break down. For items that don’t last as long, like meat and milk, you’d lessen the amount of gelatine in the formula”.

It’s an interesting invention and a simple one, but it doesn’t meet the problems in the supply chain. The estimated shelf life is the calculated base for the gelatine label. Gelatine, indeed, follows in general the deterioration pattern of food. That’s true, but as the formula is calculated and pre-set, gelatine in the label deteriorates following the pre-set formula, without looking at the actual situation in the packaging itself. Although there are many unknown and unexpected factors in the supply chain, which influence the shelf life of the product inside the packaging, it is the duration of the gelatine formula that decides whether the product is fresh or not. They both don’t always walk hand-in-hand. As said, it’s a nice invention and worth further research, but for the moment it’s too simple and too inaccurate to be deployed in real life.

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