Ever imagined eating up your favorite muffins or cupcakes without removing the paper or plastic film surrounding them? Or eating your on-the-go breakfast along with its plastic packaging? Well, this could be the reality very soon, and this time, plastic won’t be the material for packaging. An amazing concept of ‘edible food packaging’ has been introduced to the food world the last year that can replace plastic packaging with something edible. Thanks to the USDA’s research team for discovering an innovative, edible, and biodegradable film that can potentially become a substitute for plastic used in food packaging.
What is ‘edible packaging’ all about?
Ice cream cones that we have been eating for over a century were probably the first example of edible packaging. However, they are restricted only to ice creams – even today. The time has come when all types of foods can be available with edible packaging. A team of researchers from the USDA, led by Laetitia Bonnaillie and Peggy Tomasula, recently discovered that a casein-derived film can be used to package goods in the food industry. Casein is a milk protein that can improve the shelf life of foods, preventing them from spoilage over an extended time.
Plastic packaging prevents oxidation for a limited time period but pure casein is a strong oxygen blocker and thus, the casein-derived material is almost 500x more efficient in blocking oxygen and preventing food spoilage. It readily dissolves in water, which is why some salts and citrus pectin are added to strengthen it and impart moisture resistance. According to the research team, casein packaging appear like plastic films but do not stretch as much and are not sensitive to prolonged exposure to light. The market currently has a few foods with edible packaging based on starch; however, it is hardly efficient when it comes to preventing oxidation of food and is highly sensitive to light exposure.
Will edible packaging potentially cut on plastic waste & food waste?
Millions of people worldwide do not get enough food to eat. On the other hand, immense amount of edible as well as spoiled food is thrown into bins every day. While ‘upcycling’ has already started to take care of leftovers, spoilage of food is still a big issue in front of the industry. Whether the foods are raw, processed, or cooked, packaging plays a pivotal role here. Although plastic recycling has been in practice over the years, a majority of plastic packages end up into waste pits and it takes several years for complete decomposition. Casein film packaging would significantly reduce food spoilage and wastage. If some consumers do not wish to eat the packaging and throw it into bins, it would still not be harmful to environment. Entirely biodegradable and sustainable, this packaging technology would lower non-degradable waste. It would also minimize the spoilage and wastage of food during distribution along the value chain.
“The prime objective behind the discovery of this innovative packaging technology is to use the leftovers and excesses. The US produces more milk than its population actually consumes. Casein-based packaging technology could strategically use the excess milk and milk products to form a film for packaging food products. With this, the Dairy & Functional Foods research unit of USFDA aims to introduce packaging that keeps food fresh for longer time and help to reduce wastage of food,” clarifies Bonnaillie, a research lead.
Any possible limiting factors that might affect this innovation?
Yes, there are a few factors that can significantly influence the mass execution of this ‘edible food packaging’ concept; Mayo Clinic indicates one of them. Casein is exclusively a milk protein that is available in cow’s milk. However, considering the fact that a large global population is allergic to milk or related products, this innovation can face a major challenge before its official launch.
Moreover, as mentioned earlier, casein’s property to readily dissolve in water may be a barrier when it comes to surviving the moisture in environment and packaging of semi-liquids and beverages. Necessity of secondary packaging is a major factor that can challenge this concept, in terms of economy. In order to prevent foods from getting dirty and unhygienic to consume, secondary packaging over the casein films will be a compulsion rather than an option, eventually adding to the overall costs.
Researchers are currently working on the solutions to all these critically important issues. The team is also working on the possibility of spraying casein coating on grains and cereals in order to prevent sogginess. Currently, prototype casein film samples are being created for a small food company in Texas. Although this edible packaging does not have any particular taste right now, it can be possibly created in tasty and nutritious forms by using various flavors, probiotics, vitamins, and much more. The casein-based food packaging is believed to be on the store shelves soon, within the next three years.