A Fresh Look at Tortilla Packaging: Wicketed Bags Are on the Way Out

By Mike Terry
Posted In : flow wrapping, Bakery, Tortillas

Tortillas are changing. Traditionally, flour and corn were kings in almost all tortilla production. But today’s consumers are seeing unlimited possibilities in ingredients like cauliflower, almond, and quinoa flour. Modern tortillas have not only become a laboratory for diet-friendly, culinary experimentation but also effective transporters of food, replacing bread at dining tables and incorporating fewer synthetic ingredients and improved tortilla packaging to appeal to the “clean-label” crowd.

But for all the new ground being broken in the world of tortillas, one essential element remains the same for packagers and producers: the tortilla package! Packaging holds the key to optimal product preservation, protection, and presentation throughout the production to consumer lifecycle.

Tortillas, especially modern iterations, have low preservative levels. This means they are more susceptible to rapid oxygenation. Tortillas dry out, mold forms, and the food becomes unusable.

The Case for Wicketed Polyethylene Bag Packaging

Today, more than 80% of major tortilla brands employ wicketed polyethylene bags to package their products to combat the ticking clock of tortilla shelf life. Why? The case for this type of packaging is a strong one: consumers perceive it as a reliable, cost-effective approach.

Not without reason. In most cases, wicketed poly bags are manufactured with a bottom gusset, perforations, and simple package printing at a low cost. Packagers can also add useful features like resealable adhesive tape, heat sealing, or even reclosable zippers. Wicketed poly bags are compatible with limited automation equipment for increased speed. They can be purchased in bulk by the thousand for cost-effectiveness and are manufactured in various widths and lengths to match product requirements.

An Imperfect Packaging System

Still, for all their advantages, wicketed poly bags come up short as the ideal tortilla packaging system for three reasons:

Limited Automated Material Infeeding

A human operator is required to manually load bags at various frequencies. This additional human contact and extra installation of complex machinery can lead to an increased risk of food contamination, additional maintenance, higher labor costs related to repetitive jobs, and increased turnover.

Increased Plastic Waste

Mass-produced wicketed poly bags generally require an extra twist tie for closing and product preservation and leave rubber washers and wire wickets after production, adding to industrial scrap and feeding the waste stream.

Limited Preservation Capabilities

Wicketed bags do not support Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP). Without it, product experiences significantly decreased shelf life, increasing food waste. Using poly bags lacks the preservation power of more modern, sophisticated packaging systems.

Opting for this type of packaging may seem to save you more in the short term for your tortilla packaging, but those benefits don’t last. With material costs and turnover on the rise and qualified packaging labor on the decline, adding pollution concerns, food spoilage, and waste to your list of challenges can mean disaster for your tortilla packaging production, whether you’re a startup or a national chain.

Tortilla Packaging Gets a Modern Overhaul

improved tortilla packaging

No matter what the ingredients or your product’s preservative level, there are three boxes that you want to tick for your tortilla packaging:

  • Deliver the great flavor your consumers want
  • Maintain the consistency they know
  • Optimize shelf life

If wicketed poly bags aren’t the ideal way to achieve those objectives, what can you do to better protect and preserve taste and consistency?

The answer is simple: Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP)

MAP minimizes or replaces all the oxygen inside the package interior with a mixture of nitrogen and CO2. This process inhibits oxygenation and mold growth and better preserves the product freshness you wish to deliver.

There are two processes for modern tortilla packaging that deliver the MAP compatibility, protection, preservation, presentation, and automation you need: thermoforming and flow wrapping.

Thermoforming for Atmosphere and Shelf Life

Once tortillas are stacked and loaded into the machine, either manually or robotically (via automation), thermoforming provides optimal product preservation by removing all oxygen from the interior packaging cavity via vacuum. Nitrogen and CO2 are then added as part of the MAP process, preventing spoilage and microbial growth and giving thermoformed tortilla packaging the most extended shelf life possible (up to 200 days).

In addition to MAP, a thermoformer machine can automatically cut packages to the desired shape, accurately mirroring the product within. With thermoforming, you can add re-closeable zipper attachments, zig-zag knife cutting capabilities for easy-open packaging, and print full dynamic graphics and nutritional information on the packaging before the product makes its way downstream. Most importantly, every step of the thermoforming process can be automated to reduce waste, improve efficiency, and optimize production at the requested volume.

Thermoforming’s MAP, shelf life, and automation come with some tradeoffs. For example, placing product – manually or automatically – is slower than flow wrapping, which means less output and reduced production. You will also need to change out the tooling on a thermoformer for packages of different sizes. Should you require different films, you may have to consider additional time and financial investments for streamlined production.

Flow Wrapping for Increased Speed and Output

Flow wrapping is one of the top tortilla packaging systems available today. It optimizes efficiency and throughput, even in high-speed, high-volume operations. Product is automatically loaded into an inline feeding system and packaged into a clear or printed polyolefin, polypropylene, or laminate film, forming a three side seal package. Flow wrap packaging can be modified with additions of tearable notching, adhesive tape, vertical hanging perforations, and resealable zippers to enhance shelf life, moisture retention, flavor, and product consistency.

Most importantly, flow wrapping allows for full MAP compatibility. MAP lowers the oxygen levels inside the flow-wrapped packaging for better product preservation and prevents oxygenation and microbial growth. Though flow wrapping requires an additional oxygen scavenger to remove oxygen as completely as a thermoformer does, the increased production and efficiency can be a welcome trade when considering production cost.

What exactly does “improved efficiency” mean with flow wrapping equipment?

Flow wrapping machines can produce up to 120 packages per minute (ppm). It also offers full branding and logo visibility on the top and bottom sides of the package for optimal retail presentation. In a side-by-side comparison, Thermoforming’s slower loading processes cannot match those production levels, and the average wicketed poly bag machine can produce approximately half that number.

Flow Wrapping Tortillas Makes Dollars and Sense

A fully automated flow wrapping system provides better protection and shelf-life for your product than wicketed packaging. Eliminating manual labor associated with product loading can result in savings of up to $360,000 per year per line (this assumes two staff per line, three shifts a day at average fully loaded operator rates). Flow wrapping also reduces waste and enjoys a lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) over the life of your equipment as compared to wicketed bagging.

Standing out in the Crowd

Harnessing the power of flow wrapping or thermoforming delivers better product preservation and productivity. But what else can you do to stand apart from your competitors in the tortilla packaging space?

Differentiating yourself helps cut through industry noise. Here are several ways you can promote yourself for better brand identity and success in an already crowded market:

  • Size: Tortillas can come in different sizes, ranging from 4.5 inches to 12 inches in diameter. Both thermoforming and flow wrapping allow you to completely customize the length and width of your tortilla packaging to increase recognition and improve shelf life for even the largest products without sacrificing quality.
  • Graphics & Logos: Tortillas are taking center stage as a staple for snacks and entrees alike. Consider incorporating better graphics, full-size logos, and integrated nutrition labeling. Don’t be reluctant to include official certification badges from the FDA, AIB, and others using advanced thermoforming and flow wrapping capabilities.
  • Green Label Ingredients: Less is more when it comes to tortilla ingredients. Consumers crave simplicity in their food. More reliable seals and MAP better preserve fresh ingredients on store shelves, improving your ability to offer non-traditional ingredients with fewer preservatives.
  • Product Quality: Automated thermoforming or flow wrapping offer more options for product preservation and consistency. MAP, reclosable features, and the ability to freeze and thaw tortillas help keep your product fresher for longer and reduce overall food waste.

Looking towards the Future of Tortilla Packaging

Integrating automated thermoforming or flow wrapping into your tortilla packaging operations requires serious consideration. Questions of cost, efficiency, product quality, and shelf life will always require careful planning and answers.

Once you discover all the advantages thermoforming and flow wrapping can offer, you’ll see updating your packaging process can only benefit your operations. Your customers will have healthier, lifestyle-aligned choices, better overall product quality, and improved tortilla shelf life. On the production front, these packaging methods help drive increased efficiency, improved sustainability, and increased consumer adoption.

If you’d like to know more, Harpak-ULMA stands ready to help you navigate the future of tortilla packaging. Let us show you improved automated processes that let you do more.

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