Q&A about food science, food settling, and distribution testing with Michael Kuebler

What is food settling? Why does it matter?

Flaked foods such as cereal or chips will naturally sink to the bottom of the package as it’s shaken around during transit. Too much settling often leads to the infamous half-empty bag of cereal or mostly-broken chips and, inevitably, customer complaints. If a customer repeatedly feels as if they’re being cheated by a half-empty package, they will stop buying the product.

What causes food settling?

Food settling is mainly caused by the vibration effects of transportation. It can be exacerbated if the food product is especially brittle and can’t handle much vibration without breaking. Small pieces settle down further, leading to more void space in the package.

How can a manufacturer prevent food settling?

Some food settling, such as that caused by vibration, is natural and ultimately unavoidable. Food settling caused by breakage can be mitigated by reformulating the product itself. Food scientists would need to adjust the product to be more robust and resistant to breakage, while maintaining flavor and texture.

Why don’t manufacturers just add more product to the package?

Increasing fill levels to counteract negative customer perception ultimately costs money and is not a good long-term solution. Additionally, if fill levels get to high, contaminants can get into the seal area and lead to processing problems. The final package a customer receives was essentially full, volume-wise, when it was packaged. Any void space at the top is the product of inevitable settling during transit, not deceitful shortchanging. This is also why most food manufacturers list the weight of the food product on the package: Even if the volume varies due to settling, the actual product quantity is consistent from package to package.

How can a manufacturer know how much a product is settling during transit?

Laboratory testing can simulate the rigors of a food product’s supply chain and measure breakage and settling throughout the testing process. Vibration testing recreates road and rail conditions, the most common modes of transportation for flaked food products. This is an excellent option for manufacturers looking to determine whether a new formulation is robust enough to handle the supply chain by testing a small batch before investing in large-scale production.