Consumer behaviors are ever-changing these days, and even if you have the resources and nimbleness to change with them, trend chasing always means you’re one step behind. Zenpack Co-founder and Creative Director Leo Chao ponders this as he discusses his approach to food packaging design. “We’re designing for every solution going forward. Future proof.”

“‘Fine, you’re direct to consumer now, but we’re going to design so that if one day you’re in retail, you’re going to be okay. Or you’re in retail right now. Okay. We’re designing a new system for you because one day you’re going to be a DTC brand.’”

According to Chao, this is the state of food packaging today. DTC brands entering retail and legacy retail brands going straight to their customers. It’s all about reaching your people—wherever they are—through modern food packaging design with minimal containers to lower costs, reduce storage, and expedite production lines. And to do that, it all comes down to the common denominators.

So what are the common denominators in food packaging design, and what are some differences that separate retail and e-comm?


The original purpose of packaging was to protect something. While these days it doubles as marketing, that original purpose hasn’t gone anywhere. Buckets don’t need packaging, and they don’t even really need marketing—if you need a bucket, you need a bucket. But unless we’re talking about bananas or anything with protective skin, food needs packaging. 

Safe Food Packaging

“You can’t kill the consumer,” said Nate Jiang, Brand Strategist at Zenpack and veteran of FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) behemoths SC Johnson and Conagra. “That is a thing. I mean, this is food. It’s something that goes in peoples’ bodies. The first and foremost thing is you have to look at safety.”

“There’s a reason Capri Sun has a clear bottom now. Because someone actually opened it up once and found a ton of mold. All of their pouches now have completely clear bottoms.”

Mold aside—push it far aside, hopefully off the table—there are other factors to consider with regards to safety in food packaging.

A built-in tamper-resistant straw Zenpack designed for Jinx Drinx.

While moisture barriers keep small amounts of liquid from seeping out, such as for a microwavable tray, they also keep moisture from seeping in. The shelf life of a can of nuts is a lot shorter if the humid fluctuations of summer are creeping in—the aroma of rancidity when opening them. Yummy…

But although rancid peanuts won’t necessarily make you sick, listeria will. And so will E. coli. And salmonella. Sealed food packaging is a must to keep the nasty stuff out and the good taste in.

Chemical contamination is another concern with food packaging. Obviously you don’t want chemicals seeping into your tasty goods, but you also want to make sure that films and coatings used on your packaging aren’t rubbing off harmful substances to consumers. 

PFAS, which is a family of some 12,000 chemicals, the most (in)famous of which is Teflon, is both allowed in the US currently and could be banned sometime in the future as troves of research indicate the chemicals’ destructive nature towards people, animals, and the environment. 

So while you are currently allowed to use these chemicals in food packaging, you should still think about A) the wellbeing of your consumers, and B) if the laws change sometime soon, you’ll have to scramble to change your packaging. Chao advocates for “Future proof”.


Food waste is the biggest greenhouse gas contributor within the food industry. While a lot of that is related to overproduction and mismanagement by grocers, as a food brand, you have a role to play in this, too. If a seal isn’t tight, or lids come undone, your products can go bad.

And this doesn’t just apply to transit timetables, whether to retailers to direct to consumers’ homes. Factoring storage and preventing waste of your products into your food packaging design helps make your customers’ lives easier. And isn’t that the point?

If something doesn’t seal well, or goes bad too quickly before someone can finish it, how likely are they to buy it again? No one is going to keep buying something if they’re always throwing a quarter of it away.

For certain types of food, this also involves portion control. Is the container too big to eat in one sitting? Most consumers aren’t going to count chips or weigh their snacks. So to lower waste and allow for easy portions, the size of the package and (maybe) resealing need to be considered.

By designing your food packaging to reduce waste and prolong shelf life, you’ll save money at various points in the product’s journey, and you’ll reduce your pollution.


“The packaging’s purpose is to get the product from A to B without doing any damage,” said Chao. “That’s really the main goal. And if that’s not doing its job there, then what the hell are you doing? You’re just creating waste. So for me, that’s the worst.”

Sure, this could’ve been included in the waste section above. But transportation seems the most fitting—besides, it shows how so many aspects of food packaging are intertwined.

Getting your product from A to B is what it all comes down to, free of waste, salmonella, and just general crushing. This means the package needs to be protective, yes. But it also needs to be light enough that it doesn’t create excess shipping costs. 

It should be stackable and easy to handle. Logistically, do forklift drivers hate seeing your logo, or do they pay it no mind? If the size or shape are, well, weird, do you have an outer box to make things easy for everyone handling your product? If you’re packaging in glass, are the bottles protected? 

olive oil jones cardboard packaging
Olive Oil Jones boxes designed by Zenpack, reducing breakage, improving labor efficiency, and enhancing the customer experience.

A good example of designing for transportation is the Olive Oil Jones solution that Zenpack came up with. The DTC brand was using inefficient packaging that wasted time and kept breaking during transportation. 

So Zenpack designed two monomaterial corrugated boxes, one that doubled as a mailer and one that slid into another corrugated mailer. These protected the bottles, enhanced the unboxing experience, and saved time with simple cardboard inserts so that one person could pack an order in just a couple of minutes. 

While reducing breakage during transportation was Olive Oil Jones’ main concern, the brand also wanted easy fulfillment and flawless unboxing. Additionally, the brand stressed that it wanted plastic free packaging. Zenpack delivered on every aspect.

So does that example fall under transportation? Sure, why not. Food packaging design is almost never about fulfilling just one aspect. 

Food Packaging Materials & Sustainability

We have an entire blog just about common packaging materials. It’s over 4,000 words, so it covers a thing or two. While there are certain requirements for food packaging, there have also been many recent advancements in material usage, expanding beyond the standard applications of plastic, glass, paper, tin, aluminum, and plastic films and coatings. 

And since Zenpack is focused on sustainability, reducing and eliminating its plastic usage, using monomaterial solutions, and improving recyclability, both Chao and Jiang spent quite a bit of time talking about materials.

What works for different food products, what can be done better, how to use monomaterials and increase recyclability, and what new and exciting biomaterials are coming to market, even if they might not be commercially scalable yet.

So what do you need with food packaging? You need protection and sealability. You might need a moisture barrier. Maybe resealable. 

Do you want to use plastic? Can you get away without using it? Tetrapak and similar packages have become popular these days. Paper on the outside, aluminum on the inside, glued together. That’s great, it doesn’t use plastic. It’s also recyclable. But how often is it recycled? That’s something that often doesn’t get asked enough. 

Ability to recycle vs. infrastructure and desire to do so are two very different things.

Tetrapak is also unavailable to smaller brands that don’t have the volume necessary to contract with them. This often leaves newer brands with options such as plastic or glass—one that’s seen by many consumers as a no-go and another that’s more expensive in both sourcing and shipping.

Chao said he’s currently working on something at Zenpack, a new way of packaging, that would allow for smaller brands that don’t have the volume needed to work with Tetrapak to still go plastic free.

But while paper is a better alternative than plastic in many cases, and many brands are trying to shift away from plastic—which is good—there are still concerns about deforestation.

This isn’t pitting paper against plastic, though. No, the choice isn’t simply between those two in many cases. Instead it’s an encouragement to look at all the new materials coming to market. 

There’s biobased ones like PLA, which is industrially compostable—not home compostable. Conflating the two, and intermixing them with the term ‘biodegradable’ could be greenwashing, so it’s also important to understand where your materials stand with regards to end-of-life scenarios and the wider world. 

Both Chao and Jiang talked about Cruz Foam, a new foam to replace styrofoam, made from the leftover shells of shellfish. Both packaging experts are looking at foam replacements due to the many DTC brands that need cold storage for shipping and don’t want to pay for refrigerated trucks.

There are also many new seaweed replacements for plastic. These include films, coatings, containers, sachets, and pouches

Then there’s materials made from agriwaste—which is a rather large category that includes plant material left out in fields after harvest, residue and spent grains leftover from beer brewing, tree trimmings, and more.

And when it comes to shipping pallets, you can’t go wrong with coconut husks, rather than cutting down trees.

While none of these are commercially scalable yet, within a year or two we might see them on shelves at every corner store.

closeup of cambio paper belly band packaging
Cambio packaging with soy-based ink.

Food Packaging Inks

While they’re still legal to use in many parts of the world, places like France and the EU have recently banned mineral oils in packaging inks used for food. These minerals, such as MOAH and MOSH can rub off from the packaging onto the food and contaminate it. The latter, MOAH, has also been shown to cause cancerous tumors

Although these minerals are still allowed elsewhere, it makes sense to avoid using them for a couple of reasons: A) If you sell internationally, you don’t have to switch out approved inks for Europe, and B) It takes a lot of effort to get a government body to ban any chemical—see PFAS above—so if one or more does, it’s probably pretty nasty. Sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t need any fanfare.


This is a subcategory of materials. Why does it need its own space? Well because designing with a focus on monomaterials increases recyclability. Mono, one, refers to one material here. And if you only need to use one material in your food packaging, whether paper, aluminum, or even PET plastic, then customers will be more likely to put it in the right waste stream, recycling facilities won’t need to separate pieces, and everything goes where it needs to go. 

The more separating the needs to happen before recycling, the more likely something will be landfilled or incinerated. And is that what you wanted when you designed your packaging and made sure to put the chasing arrows symbol on the bottom?

Reusable Food Packaging

Deposit return schemes are extremely successful in Germany. There are laws proposed in parts of the UK. It’s not much of a thing in the US, though. While people often think of these initiatives as focused on drinks bottles—which they are—some companies have gotten creative and launched reusable packaging for dry foods that use the same return machines as drinks bottles. Made from stainless steel with a resealable plastic lid, these packages can be reused many times by food brands and customers alike.

Can a system like this work in the US? Maybe. But there needs to be cooperation between brands, retailers, and consumers.

Cost and Efficiency

Jiang said cost is the number one restraint for clients when it comes to packaging. Cost is not limited to materials, however, as it also includes, parts, machinery, assembly, tooling, and labor. And efficiency keeps labor flowing, and minimizes kitting time and complexity of order fulfillment—such as folding or gluing boxes. It also includes storing unused packaging. 

The materials you use directly affect the cost and efficiency of your packaging. And the food you make and sell affects the materials you use. Intertwined.

Food Packaging Usability

Jiang also emphasized usability in food packaging. “If it’s a snack bag, for instance, can a person’s hand fit inside of it? If someone’s going to be at their desk, can it stand up? You know, so things don’t spill out?”

He brought up design elements like tear strips and resealability. How long will this package be used? 

At the intersection of materials and usability, flour is often sold in heavy duty kraft paper bags. Could it be sold in a tin? Yes, according to Jiang, it would make consumers’ lives easier. But would they want to pay extra to ease your cost burden for the more expensive packaging? 

Additionally, most consumers already have their own system for storing flour at home, given the historical packaging choice for decades. Whether that’s a glass jar, a cool dry place, or just knowing they go through flour fast enough that it doesn’t really matter.

Materials, cost, storage, reuse, the list goes on when considering the standard packaging for just one product. 

How are your customers using your product? The answer to that question will help determine the shape, the opening, and the materials.

Food Packaging Branding

“Everything starts with what the brand is trying to do,” said Jiang. “What is it trying to do and why does it matter? Consumers aren’t dumb—they’ll sniff out brands that are disingenuous or lack authenticity.”

The logo, colorway, graphics, and fonts all need to play together to convey not just the food you’re selling, but where it fits within culture, and how to differentiate it on a shelf for your target audience to find. As for that last one, “We call that findability,” Jiang said. “You have to keep the elements that people associate with your brand.”

Coffee packaging by Zenpack and Brandmonger for BIGFACE.

So what are the types of elements people are drawn to or associate with certain things, that makes them reach for a product on the shelf?

“In the 90s and early 2000s, it was green, right? Anything green was basically a health food. And that’s a strategy they were using, which is just common associated elements—something that people would associate with a given quality or attribute.

“So nowadays, everything is kraft. Like basically brown butcher paper color. That’s associated with something being more artisanal or more recyclable or just more natural. Even if you have an Oreo logo on it, right—I’m sure Oreo will come out with Oreo Organic that’ll be in brown paper but still have the Oreo logo, right? So a logo isn’t enough…How do you stand out in the sea of sameness?”

(It turns out that Oreo tested an organic version in 2006—it was discontinued. And no, the brand didn’t go the straight butcher paper route, but this color scheme certainly hints at it, and is pretty spot on as far as how “natural’ products are marketed.)

organic oreo box
Jiang’s musings were pretty well on the mark.

E-commerce vs Retail

This is where retail and DTC start to diverge. Everything to this point has been more or less the common denominator, as Chao puts it. Jiang said that when it comes to e-commerce, many possibilities open up to create a complete buyer experience.

With retail, branding “focuses (almost) solely on getting a buyer’s attention.” Whereas with e-commerce “there’s a lot of possibilities for artwork on the primary packaging as well as how you brand the shipper.” 

Using artwork as an example, canned wine producer Djuce takes that seriously, with its can and DTC secondary packaging (the box) creating a new experience for the consumer. 

So what does Jiang view as creative packaging, something that captures a consumer’s attention whether through retail or DTC? “Is the user experience better? Is it doing something in a new way? Does the artwork speak to the brand and customer? What kind of story is it trying/succeeding at telling?”

He cited KIND snack bars as a popular sweet between retail and e-commerce and creativity. The brand offers a build-your-own-box through e-commerce, and because the bars are individually wrapped, it’s simple to fulfill both retail and e-comm orders with their current operational capabilities.

So what kind of things does a brand encounter when venturing into DTC after years in retail and vice versa? What do they need from their food packaging? Ideas. 

They need ideas and flexibility.

Chao said, “A lot of retail brands have come to us and said ‘We’ve been in retail for years, we’re now doing DTC, we don’t know what to do. Can you help us with that?’

“Everything they do is beautifully printed packaging—size doesn’t really matter too much because of the shelf size and pallet—it’s all good. But once they move to DTC and realize, wow, every little inch counts because once you’re over a certain size, your shipping costs go up. And they learn that the hard way. Then they come to us and say, ‘Can you help us find a better solution?’ Early, maybe five years ago, a lot of that happened. 

“And it’s funny, because right when the pandemic was about to end, maybe two years ago, there was this hard decline with DTC because all of a sudden more people were going out. A lot of brands came to us and said ‘Hey, we’re pushing hard to be in retail because DTC is going downwards.’ So we got these requests from different groups and basically ended up doing the same things. Oftentimes, our solution is actually similar where there’s an opportunity to create a single piece of packaging that will work well in both spaces.

Which gets us back to the similarities of retail and e-commerce.

 “You don’t have to own a lot of space in retail. You can have a large, outward facing package—your width and length could be large, but your depth doesn’t need to be that deep. People don’t see the side of the box. There’s all sorts of things you can do to grab attention without creating empty space in your packaging.

“This hasn’t been present for many packaging engineers and designers before. They didn’t really have to solve two channels at once. Now they do, because no one wants two different packages. I think that’s what’s interesting, because it’s making a lot of room for creativity, and better and more efficient packaging.”

Food Packaging of the Future

So what else do Chao and Jiang have to say about food packaging design and branding?

Jiang: “A lot of the big brands out there are still narrowly focused on their segments as opposed to looking at the bigger picture. If they invested more in creating new systems, instead of just creating new products, they could build for the future.”

Chao: “You have to be in both retail and DTC now. A brand that only wants to be in retail or only wants to be in DTC probably will not survive, or at least have a less likely chance.”
And this is one of the oldest stories in business: adapting to market demands and new channels. So if you know which way you want to take your food packaging design now, awesome, glad these experts could help. But if you want them to handle it for you, that’s what they’re here for. Talk to Zenpack and we can get something cooking for you.

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