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Demand for retort packaging for food is forecast to increase 1.7% annually to $4.7 billion in 2026. Retort will remain the largest type of thermal food processing used due to the low cost and long shelf life afforded by cans for use with soups, processed fruits and vegetables, and dinners, as well as the established nature of retort processing lines. Growth will also be supported by the increasing popularity of alternative retort packaging, such as pouches and cartons.
However, retort packaging will lose share to aseptic processing. Aseptic processing affords multiple benefits over retort processing, which requires the food product to be heated in-container for an extended period of time. The most important advantage of aseptic processing is shorter heating times, which minimizes the impact of thermal processing of flavor, texture, and nutrition.
Metal Cans to Experience Slowest Growth; Pouches & Cartons to Register Strong Gains
Metal cans – the oldest and by far largest format of retort packaging – will experience slow demand growth off of a particularly high base year. Growth will be further restrained by competition from other retort packaging formats, as well as competition from other thermal processes and fresh and frozen products. In addition, canned dairy-based foods and meat, poultry, and seafood will experience especially slow growth, due to both competition from fresh and frozen alternatives, as well as competition from retort pouches.
Pouches and cartons – currently comparatively niche retort formats – will see the strongest gains due to their premium image and lighter weight while maintaining similar shelf lives. Significant demand growth is expected for processed fruits and vegetables, broth, and condiments, which are increasingly packaged in retort pouches and cartons instead of cans.
Sustainability Concerns Spur Packaging Innovation
Sustainability continues to be a key area of concern in the packaging industry and a driving force behind breakthroughs. One of the primary issues regarding retort pouches – a popular and fast-growing segment – is their difficulty in being recycled due to their multi-material composition. To combat this, many companies have released single-material pouches that are still able to withstand the retort process and are easier to recycle, as well as increasing their use of recycled content, reducing material usage, and creating their own recycling programs.
Historical Market Trends
Shifts in demand for food packaging from year to year are determined by a number of factors, primarily related to the production and marketing of food products. These activities in turn are influenced by:
- demographic trends such as age, average household size, and levels of disposable income
- consumer spending on food and the balance between at-home and away-from-home meals
- food preferences (e.g., demand for enhanced convenience or for organic products)
- restaurant and other foodservice industry trends
In addition, a number of competitive variables determine the mix of packaging types used and their cost, including:
- raw material and conversion costs
- changes in the mix of foods being packaged, particularly in terms of food format (canned, dried, frozen, fresh)
- trends in packaging size and format, such as shifts toward smaller single-serving packages, family-size units, or multipacks
- the proportion of food that is sold via retail channels versus foodservice establishments
- environmental and regulatory factors, including trends such as source reduction, the use of recycled content, and recyclability
Demand growth for retort packaging in 2020 strongly increased due to a shift in product mix toward more packaging-intensive retail foods as consumers cooked and ate more at home. However, this increase was somewhat restrained by declining sales of foodservice packaging due to the extensive disruption in the foodservice industry caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This was followed by a return to historical growth in 2021 as consumers reverted to their normal shopping habits and the restaurant industry recovered.
Food Industry Production Trends
The most important factor in the amount of shelf-stable food packaging needed is the outlook for food production, both in terms of the volume produced and the types of food that are popular. While trends in the amount of food produced and consumed at the aggregate level tend to be relatively stable – tracking growth in population and food pricing levels – the mix of food produced can vary over time influenced by changing consumer dietary preferences and trends in where food is consumed.
Food shipments, including milk and juice, are forecast to rise 2.2% per year to $971 billion in 2026:
- Meat, poultry, and seafood will account for the highest share of output value, aided by a renewed focus on proteins for healthy lifestyles, although competition from meat alternatives will limit advances to some degree.
- Processed fruits and vegetables, especially frozen products, will see above-average growth based on ongoing consumer preference for convenient, easy-to-prepare meals and side dishes that are also healthy. Competition from fresh fruits and vegetables will limit gains to some extent.
- Slow gains for milk will reflect increasing consumer interest in plant-based alternatives to milk, which often provide health benefits (such as lower cholesterol) not found in dairy milk.
- Snack-sized and smaller food portions will continue to be popular, as consumers look for ways to reduce food waste and engage in healthier eating habits.