What is Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP)? Is it right for your packaging line?

Danielle Ohl

Food Packaging and preservation - lettuce MAPFresh. Natural. Preservative-free.

Most shoppers want fresh products that involve minimal processing, yet they also want them to have an extended shelf life. Why? In a nutshell, busy consumers don't have time (or the desire) to stop at the grocery store every day.

Additionally, food and beverage producers must supply their products to an increasingly globalized market, which calls for longer shelf stability while ensuring optimal taste and texture for their products.

Because of these reasons, modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) has become the go-to technology for extending the shelf life of fresh items.

So, what exactly is MAP, and how do you know if it's right for your packaging line?

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What is modified atmosphere packaging?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), modified atmosphere packaging involves actively or passively controlling or modifying the atmosphere surrounding the product within a package made of various types and/or combinations of films.

A modified atmosphere is created by altering the natural distribution and makeup of atmospheric gases. When applied to packaging, this involves modifying or controlling the makeup of gases contained within each package to provide optimal conditions for increasing the shelf life and reducing oxidation and spoilage of perishable food and beverage products. 

The FDA defines two kinds of modified atmosphere packaging as passive and active.

  • Active modified atmosphere packaging displaces gases in the package, replacing them with a desired mixture of gases. 
  • Passive modified atmosphere packaging involves using a selected film type when packaging a product. The desired atmosphere delops naturally due to the products' respiration and the diffusion of gasses through the film. 

What are some types of modified atmosphere packaging?

Depending on your product and your specifications, different MAP packaging technologies can be employed. Check out the four most popular:

1. Gas flushing
One of the most popular active MAP technologies for food and beverage products, gas flushing of packages is very common. According to the FDA, gas flush accomplishes three things:

  • Displacement of oxygen to delay oxidation
  • Decreasing the growth of aerobic spoilage organisms
  • Acting as a filler to maintain package conformity

During a gas flush process, a harmless gas (usually nitrogen) is actively pumped into the bag before sealing to displace ambient oxygen. This is done to decrease the amount of oxygen inside the package, which will in turn decrease the rate of spoilage, as oxygen is one of the top killers of freshness. Nitrogen gas flush is a MAP option that many of our clients add to their packaging line.


2. Barrier packaging films
Choosing specific packaging films that provide increased protection is an example of passive modified atmosphere packaging. This is accomplished by using barrier packaging materials that provide decreased permeability to moisture and oxygen, such as low-density polyethylene (LDPE), polyvinylchloride (PVC) or polypropylene (PP), according to FDA.

New on the market are 'smart' packaging films that can contain indicators of temperature, leakage, food quality, and more. 

3. Scavenger or desiccant packs
Another example of MAP packaging is the addition of an oxygen scavenger or desiccant pack to your packaging. You've probably seen these inside pill bottles.

According to BAKERY ONLINE, these small sachet type packages often contain a mixture of iron powder and ascorbic acid, and sometimes activated carbon. These ingredients act as catalysts or activators, absorbing ambient moisture and oxygen, thereby removing it from the interior of the packaging that houses the perishable product.


4. On-package valves
One-way valves added to the exterior of packaging are another example of MAP. Most often used in thecoffee packaging one way valve diagram MAP coffee industry, these special valves can be added to premade bags or to rollstock film during the packaging process.

One-Way Valves allow certain gases to escape from the package without allowing any outside gases in. This is often done to release pressure created from off-gassing, which is when products release gases or other compounds. 

One-way valves can also be used to allow air to escape from packages for better stacking and palletization.


How does modified atmosphere packaging protect food?

Largely, modified atmosphere packaging technologies protect fresh food by decreasing its exposure to oxygen. Oxygen leads to oxidation, which can cause discoloration, spoilage, and off-flavors and textures. By decreasing or controlling the amount of oxygen present in a package, the food product remains fresher longer, extending its shelf life and ensuring it remains attractive to consumers.

Modified Atmosphere Packaging became especially important during the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020. Consumers were instructed to leave their homes as infrequently as possible, so many began stocking up on food products with longer shelf lives. As a result, food producers and packagers saw enormous increases in demand for packaged food products that used MAP packaging technologies.


What are some examples of modified atmosphere packaging applications?

Coffee RoastersClear coffee bag with fresh valve

After coffee beans are roasted, they release carbon dioxide. Without MAP, roasters must allow the beans to cool and degas in open air before packaging because the build-up of CO2 can cause the package to burst. However, this can result in beans reaching the consumer that are not at the utmost level of freshness. Staling can occur quickly if coffee beans are exposed to the elements for too long.

As a result, many specialty coffee roasters utilize MAP packaging in the form of One-Way Valves (pictured at right) that allow for the release of carbon dioxide from the coffee bag without letting any ambient environmental gases or contaminants in. This allows for packaging coffee beans at the height of their freshness, preserving the flavors and quality that consumers desire.


Legal cannabis companies

Now that legal cannabis products are available commercially in certain U.S. states and nationwide in Canada, cannabis companies need to make sure their products stay fresher longer to create a premium consumer experience. 

When oxygen is mixed with cannabis, the THC cannabinoids turn to CBN cannabinoids, which negatively affect product efficacy, potency, and quality. As a result, top players in the industry have been investing in automated cannabis packaging systems that feature MAP packaging technologies like nitrogen gas flush to extend product shelf life.


Producers of fresh fruits and vegetables

Fresh-cut fruits and vegetables will often use many forms of modified atmosphere packaging, including nitrogen gas flush and the use of specific barrier packaging films. Fresh produce is especially sensitive to environmental conditions and oxidation (often degrading in a matter of hours), and thus often must utilize more than one tactic to preserve their freshness and stall perishing.

Nitrogen gas flush will displace oxygen within the package, thereby decreasing oxidation which leads to discoloration, off-flavors, and spoilage. Barrier packaging films double down on preservation efforts by keeping excess moisture, ambient gases, and contaminants out of the package while simultaneously maintaining the proper atmosphere inside the bag.

H. Louis Cooperhouse of Food Safety Magazine reports that MAP in the fresh-cut produce category represents one of the fastest-growing categories of modified atmosphere packaging usage.

"New fresh-cut fruit offerings that incorporate MAP and other technologies are now available, including pre-cut honeydew, pineapple, and mixed fruit salads with a 10- to 14-day shelf life, and pre-sliced apples with a three- to six-week shelf life," says Cooperhouse. These products are increasingly being offered at grocery stores to consumers who desire fresh, natural food without preservatives but also value the convenience of extended shelf life.


Specialty Snack Producers

With the increase of 'Snackification', many on-the-go consumers no longer have set meal times and prefer to snack throughout the day on healthful foods.

To maximize convenience to consumers but still offer the natural, preservative-free products they desire, snack producers increasingly use barrier packaging films to protect the freshness of their product and extend shelf life. While barrier films usually cost more, consumers by and large are happy to pay a premium for convenient snack products that will last longer and result in less product waste.

Need a packaging machine that includes MAP?

Viking Masek has many years of experience integrating our packaging machines with modified atmosphere packaging solutions from top suppliers. Interested in a full packaging automation solution that uses MAP technologies? First, let's nail down some details. Start planning your automated packaging system with our free Project Scope Planner:

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Originally published 3/23/18. Updated 8/29/22