Edible packaging

Wouldn’t it be nice if you can purchase your packed lunch weeks in advance, stay fresh without refrigeration, upon consuming, there is no nasty plastic wrapper to be disposed of? Far fetch? You may be surprised that it may just be around the corner in the form of edible packaging.

Sandwiches wrapped in edible packaging.

Edible packaging offers numerous advantages. First being if the packaging becomes mainstream, waste could be significantly reduced worldwide.

At the moment, Americans generate 1.6 million metric tons of packaging waste annually with 16% made up of non-degradable plastic. This plastic eventually will either end up in landfill or ocean bed, depriving the environment of oxygen and nutrient transfer and in turns suffocating the trees and living creatures.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we can just eat the food with the packaging? Neat, tidy and no waste. Groups of forward thinking scientists and researchers are bringing this idea into actuality.

Biodegradable starch based food packaging has been around for a while as it is one of the options explored earliest. The packaging is usually starch based, can be either coated with clay nano particles or infused with additives to improve mechanical and tensile structure. The starch-based packaging is not as good in keeping out moisture as compared to other options. Nevertheless, it is a viable option for food to be consumed soon, such as a quick hamburger one grabs from the street vendor while on route to class.  Not all starch based packaging is designed to be palatable but certainly biodegradable.

On the other hand, food packaging produced by WikiCells is specifically designed to be edible. WikiCells, founded by Harvard bioengineering alumnus, David Edwards, produces consumable packaging for various food and beverages, including coffee, ice cream, yogurts fruit juices, among others.

Inspired by the design of fruit, WikiCells packaging may consist of two layers, one outer protective edible layer encapsulates a soft inner membrane “entirely comprised of natural food particles held together by nutritive ions”. The packaging is designed not only to be mere edible but tasty and nutritious.

Currently, three main options have emerges.
WikiCells are planning to introduce ice cream and yogurt encapsulated in flavored cellophane to grocery shoppers by end of this year. If their plan goes well, patrons of movie theaters and cafés may soon be able to order a latte wrapped in caramel or chocolate shell.

Another noble initiative not only designed to be edible but to prolong perishables shelf life as well, minimizing food and drink spoilage and wastage. It is no secret that nearly half of the world edible food gone wasted due to distribution spoilage or simply pure wastage. A milk protein casein has been found to be the ideal solution. A team of scientists, led by Peggy Tomasula, D.Sc, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has developed a casein-based packaging material that is 500 times less oxygen-permeable than plastic.  When protein polymerized, they form a tighter network that is better at keeping out oxygen.

The latest casein-based packaging material closely resembling plastic packaging with three outstanding   differences – they are edible, completely environmentally friendly and they are better at keeping food fresh longer.  The scientists foresee addition of flavor and nutrients in the future. Just imagine transporting nutrient enhanced casein sheets to people suffering from famine or disaster. It may just be a viable quick alternative providing temporary relief in dire condition.

The researchers also found the protein can be sprayed directly on food, such as cereal flakes, snack bars, cheese in various forms to keep them fresh without the need for sugar coating or plastic wrapper. The material can be sprayed on paper or cardboard base packaging such as pizza box to prevent grease stains. A single-serve of powdered soup or coffee can be packed in the protein sachet to be dropped directly into hot water as the sachet is water-soluble and edible with an extra dose of protein.

The application of the edible packaging is endless. It addresses many pressing issues the world is facing- plastic pollution, food supply, and distribution, reduces health hazard in current food packaging method among others. I can’t wait for the day when edible packaging is the norm rather than a curiosity. Hurray to the end of the era of plastic packaging.

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