Sweets with a Twist

Cannabis Edibles Are Trending – and Challenging Conventional Packaging Processes

By Eric Aasen, Product Group Sales Manager – Horizontal, Robotics and Systems Portfolio at Syntegon Packaging Technology, LLC

For a long time, cannabis was forbidden and also taboo in many countries. But this didn’t prevent people from using it for medicinal and recreational purposes, although secretly. However, times are changing. Due to legalization of marijuana in certain countries and a growing number of U.S. states, cannabis is becoming more widely accepted.

In fact, a November 2021 Gallup poll found just over two-thirds of all Americans are in favor of legalizing cannabis. And 60% of adults surveyed in the U.S. by the Pew Research Center in April 2021 felt that cannabis should be legal for both medical and recreational use.

Strong public support and projected market growth point to a favorable business environment for cannabis edibles manufacturers, and the market research company BDSA expects legal cannabis sales in the US to break the $30 billion mark in 2022.

Following are answers to important questions about cannabis product trends, production requirements and technological packaging solutions:

What exactly do the U.S. cannabis regulations mean for manufacturers?

The number of U.S. states legalizing cannabis has been growing steadily since 2012 when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use. However, the regulations and legal requirements for cannabis production vary widely among states, and marijuana possession and use are currently illegal at the federal level in the U.S.

As a result, companies are not currently allowed to sell or transport cannabis products across state lines. And equipment sales and purchases can be difficult because the federal government regulates the banking industry, preventing many legitimate cannabis businesses from obtaining the business loans or financial services available to mainstream businesses.

Due to these factors, manufacturers – mostly start-ups – have to build small production facilities in individual states, which is a considerable financial burden. As a result, they often can’t invest in large-scale equipment, keeping the industry’s automation level low.

Cannabis-infused products may not contain more than 10 milligrams of cannabis per item, and packages rarely exceed 100 milligrams. Image courtesy of Syntegon.

Can we expect more favorable production conditions once further legalization opens up the market?

Lawmakers at the state and federal level are developing solutions to bring more clarity and predictability to regulations impacting financial institutions and legal cannabis-related businesses. And as more states legalize cannabis, we expect to see larger market gains that should enable companies to scale up production and increase automation levels and improve performance. The market holds great potential.

What about the European market?

In Europe, the cannabis market is still small because it focuses mainly on medical use. If legislation changes in European countries, we assume that demand for recreational cannabis will rise. We are curious to find out which products will be in demand. In any case, we’re well equipped to meet a wide range of customer needs with our modular machine concepts.

Consumers not only enjoy smoking cannabis, but are also seeking other forms of consumption, including cannabis-infused sweets. These so-called edibles offer relaxation and enjoyment at the same time, and include cannabis-infused chocolate, popcorn, hard candy and gummies.

A few years ago, chocolate was favored, but it has since taken a backseat to gummies. In the U.S., gummies made up 60%  of cannabis edibles sales in the first quarter of 2021 according to a report by BDSA, while other types of cannabis confectionery, such as chocolate, hard candy and taffy now represent less than 25% of the market.

What challenges do edibles pose for production?

Cannabis products are expensive and often have a short shelf life, so consumers  buy edibles in small quantities. Accordingly, edibles manufacturers not only need to package small batches, but must also protect the delicate products in the best possible way, using air-tight packages.

Band sealing machines and small flow wrappers lend themselves to these tasks. Band sealers preserve the flavor and help maintain a long shelf life, while flow wrappers have been a mainstay for confectionery packaging for decades, ensuring air-tight seams and processing even small product sizes and batches.

What are the challenges involved in packaging edibles?

The products are very small, differ in shape and structure, and can be quite demanding because of their often sticky texture. Many variants are also coated with sugar, which has a tendency to fall off during the handling and packaging process. This situation adds to the packaging challenges and can lead to package integrity issues if it is not handled properly. An issue like this must be avoided to preserve product integrity and appeal.

Which equipment capabilities can help manufacturers overcome these challenges?

Cleanability is a major factor. Sugar often sticks to the machine parts, disrupting the production process. This calls for properly designed equipment which allows for the fine particles to fall through without contaminating the mechanical parts. Easy cleaning is another major requirement to keep the equipment and the packagers safe.

Product protection, as with all foods, is another priority. Many manufacturers request an integrated gas flushing system to increase the shelf life of the products and keep them fresh. Similarly, packaging machines have to deliver bags with tight seams to prevent product oxidation and contamination with foreign particles.

Chocolate is another popular cannabis edible. However, together with other sweets such as hard candy and taffy, accounts for less than 25 percent of the market share. Image courtesy of Syntegon.

Product protection is important, but what about preventing misuse by children?

Child safety is a very important point. The packages have to be child-resistant to avoid misuse. At the same time, customers often want resealable packages to keep their products fresh longer. Therefore, machines must be able to produce packaging that combines these two important features.

Speaking of combinations, what about versatility? After all, edibles come in many shapes and sizes.

Given the wide variety of cannabis-based sweets, manufacturers also need flexible platforms that can process products the size of a small breath mint. Machines also need to be designed to handle these small products properly. Machines that can be easily upgraded, for instance, to gradually increase the automation of production, are a good choice as well.

What should manufacturers consider when choosing an equipment supplier?

Our experience supporting manufacturers in the pharmaceutical, confectionery, chocolate and cookie industries enables us to help customers with their current and future equipment needs for both medical and recreational cannabis product packaging.

It’s also important to choose a supplier that is familiar with different product forms and is able to provide the right equipment for special requirements. For instance, we have expertise handling delicate products requiring air-tight packaging, and our band sealing and flow wrapping machines for low outputs can be flexibly adapted to the needs of small and medium-sized companies.

How can cannabis start-ups keep their initial investments manageable?

Evolving regulations and shifting consumer preferences make it important to identify a supplier with the ability to design flexible, modular machine concepts that meet a wide range of customer needs. As the industry evolves and companies grow, they also need an experienced supplier to support them with matching equipment and automation solutions that can cut production costs while improving operator safety and product quality.  With the right partner, packagers also gain support from a dependable source for service and maintenance throughout the entire equipment lifecycle.

About the Author

Eric Aasen is the Product Group Sales Manager – Horizontal, Robotics and Systems Portfolio at Syntegon Packaging Technology, LLC. Syntegon specializes in food and pharmaceutical systems and services. Learn more at: www.syntegon.com.

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