Down the Hatch: Edible Packaging May Be Right Around the Corner
The 252nd American Chemical Society's National Meeting & Exposition came to Philadelphia at the end of August, and while I love reading about advances in science as much as the next guy, it's even better when it impacts packaging.
On the first day of the event, scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dairy and Functional Foods Research Unit, revealed that they had developed an edible and biodegradable plastic packaging alternative. The packaging film, which was presented at the ACS National Meeting, is created using milk proteins, or casein. The casein is acquired from the excess product created by the U.S. milk industry. The idea is to decrease the amount of plastic used in packaging while limiting food waste and making use of milk product that would otherwise be discarded.
In a video taken during the press conference, Dr. Laetitia M. Bonnaillie, research chemical engineer who presented the findings, explained that the packaging can be eaten along with the food that it protects as a means of extra protein in the consumer's diet. But if the consumer does not want to eat the packaging, it is instantly biodegradable.
A biodegradable and edible form of packaging may seem like it would be easily contaminated, but according to Bonnaillie it is actually 250 times more effective of an oxygen and grease barrier than typical plastic. However, while it does slow degradation, it is not as effective against moisture.
A sample of the packaging containing instant coffee was demonstrated by Bonnaillie during the conference, which can be seen here. When added to hot water, the packaging slowly breaks down, releasing the coffee into the liquid.
While the packaging is useful for coffee and other similar products, it has its limitations. In an email to packagePRINTING, Research Leader Dr. Peggy Tomasula explained:
The films are only useful for wrapping of dairy products and products that can be labeled as containing dairy. They would not be suitable for wrapping fruits or vegetables in the fresh market, for example, because milk proteins cause allergies in some people and would have to be labeled as such.
Tomasula also explained that the team did test printing on the film, by attaching a sample of the film to printer paper and placing it in a regular office printer using black and colored ink. This means that if the film were to gain groundswell, there is the potential that graphics or expiration dates could be printed on the individual packaging.
Bonnaillie also explained that the research team tested spraying the milk proteins directly on food. For example, rather than using a sugar coating to keep the flakes fresh, the milk proteins can be added to the flakes to add extra protein and keep them fresher, longer.
Audience members were then invited to ask questions at the end of the presentation. One audience member asked if the team had completed any consumer studies to see what their reaction would be to the thought of eating packaging, but Bonnaillie explained that they will be doing consumer testing in the future to gauge their reaction.
Another question asked by the audience was how to prevent contamination of the food or drink inside the packaging while on shelf. Bonnaillie responded that it would be necessary to have secondary packaging to prevent contamination, but most food that would benefit from the casein film already uses secondary packaging — think cheese sticks or single serving coffee.
Cost was another issue. While the process doesn't use much material, Bonnaillie said that a cost model has been worked into the team's five-year research plan.
According to the press release, Bonnaillie predicts that the packaging will be hitting store shelves within three years.
Packaging Perspective: While it's not clear if edible packaging would turn out to be a more cost-effective means of preservation, it is alluring from a sustainability perspective. Limiting the amount of plastic used in packaging and offering a means of keeping food fresher, longer would be a step in the right direction for the packaging industry. Consumers are demanding more environmentally friendly options, and while it might take some getting used to, eating our packaging might just be the cat's meow ... or should I say the cow's moo?