If active packaging is the muscle, then smart packaging, on the other hand, is the brains — it "senses and informs," conveying facts about the product to the consumer based on a series of environmental triggers.
Perhaps the most exciting advances in next-gen packaging will serve in the supermarket's produce section. MIT chemistry professor Timothy Swager recently developed a carbon nanotube sensor that detects ethylene, a chemical released by fruit as it ripens. The sensors cost only 25 cents to make — an important point, since cost is always a hurdle in the high-volume, low-profit food industry — and could eventually be incorporated into cardboard shipping boxes. A simple scan with a handheld device by supermarket employees would assess the ripeness of the freight contents. "If we can create equipment that will help grocery stores manage things more precisely, and maybe lower their losses by 30 percent, that would be huge," Swager told the Verge.
Not that all smart packages live in the world of labs and hypotheticals. The company Cox Technologies (now a part of Sensitech Inc.) created its FreshTag to monitor decomposition in seafood. The FreshTag, which entered the consumer market in 2000, contains chemicals that mingle with vapors released by decaying protein products: As more vapor contacts the FreshTag, its color gradually shifts from yellow to dark blue.
But the new wave of wraps and containers is about more than freshness. A team of scientists led by Joseph Hotchkiss, director of the School of Packaging at Michigan State University, has been trying to use intelligent boxing to improve the taste of grapefruit juice. They've "impregnated" the polymers on the inside of grapefruit juice cartons with enzymes that unravel bitter citrus compounds. Basically, these enzymes saw sugar molecules off of the compounds, allowing them to float freely (and sweetly) in the liquid. But the enzymes themselves remain embedded in the carton's inner lining, so they can't end up in the newly sugary juice.