The number and variety of products successfully packaged in retort pouches is very large. Lampi (12) listed more than 80 brand-name products marketed worldwide up to the year 1976. Since then, variations and forms of entrees, but probably not total numbers, have increased. Items include ready meals (eg, stews, meatballs in tomato sauce), straight sauces, meats with minimal fluids, vegetable packs, fruits, soups, and bakery items. The U.S. military's meals ready to eat combat ration currently has 24 menus— 24 retort-pouched entrées supplemented with retort-pouched fruits, rice, and noodles. Shelf-stable bread and meat-containing sandwiches, though not basically ther-moprocessed, exist in pouches of the same three-ply material.

Retort pouches continue to hold a share of the processed food market in Japan and are used for selected items in Europe. In the United States, following several testmarket ventures, the market has narrowed to the military; items in support of weight control and health programs; microwavable meals for children; campers and hikers' items; specialty, high-quality-image items; and entrées and adjuncts for direct-networking marketing systems.

One of the cited advantages of the retort pouch has been a quality improvement over cylindrical cans because of reduced heat exposure to achieve sterilization. In actuality, conflicting experiences make this postulation difficult to confirm. The U.S. military, before accepting the retort pouch as a replacement for cans in its operational rations, gathered taste test data that showed a higher acceptance for the retort pouch (15). In addition to formal, controlled acceptance assessments, a perhaps truer indication of military acceptance, though anecdotal, was the posttest, ad libitum selection of leftover rations by the test participants; 4 out of 5 selected the pouched over the canned items. Undoubtedly, commercial entities, before entering into expensive test-marketing programs, satisfied themselves that quality, in addition to convenience and other user attributes, was high. And where there has been minimal competition from frozen foods, such as in Japan, the pouch has done well (16).

Beverly (17), summarizing opinions on various aspects of retort pouch processing, reported a range of conclusions. One large U.S. food processor reported that consumers found no quality difference between pouches and retail cans for the same product. This report also cited the internal evaluations by a second large processor as revealing a pouched food quality halfway between frozen and canned and a third stating they can achieve frozen food quality. Commercial processes of 10 oz of pouched product receive 70 to 83% of the total heat exposure of same-weight cans, which raised the question as to whether this decrease was significant enough to result in detectable product quality improvement.

Retention of thiamine in thermoprocessed foods has been used as a quantitative measure of quality. With pouches of sweet potato puree processed at 250°F, 77% of the thiamine was retained as compared to 60.4% for equal-volume cans (18). A computer model calculation for a conductive heating product indicated 84.6% thiamine retention at 250°F for a 12-oz pouch and 64% for a 12-oz can (19). Data comparing thickness of the product and thiamine retention confirmed these findings (20).

In summary, product quality of retort pouches can be better than that of cans, possibly equal to that expected from some frozen products. Commercial realization has been hindered by production inabilities to get pouch-to-pouch uniformity and repeatability of product heat treatment and quality. Current indications are that this gap is being overcome.

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