So much of the food we see stocked in grocery aisle comes wrapped inside plastic. It’s clings to every wedge of cheese and encases every drop of sugar candy. Not only does all this plastic pile up for eons in our landfills and oceans, they can even leak chemicals into the food itself.
Now scientists are investigating an alternative form of food packaging made from milk that can help push us away from our plastic dependence. The U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered a milk protein called casein which acts like plastic and can keep food fresh. And you can eat it right along with the food inside!
“Everything is in smaller and smaller packaging, which is great for grabbing for lunch, for school, but then it generates so much waste,” said Laetitia Bonnaillie, a USDA researcher who co-led the casein packaging research, to Bloomberg. “Edible packaging can be great for that.”
The film is 500 times better than plastic at keeping oxygen away from food because proteins form a tighter network when they polymerize. Researchers also added glycerol to make the film softer and citrus pectin to add structure. Researchers can even add different flavors to make the packaging complement the food it houses.
Because the casein film dissolves in water, it won’t be very useful as single source of wrapping for food – like say as bags for chips. But it could replace current plastic wraps for individually wrapped string cheese. Or it could line the inside of pizza boxes. Another novel way it could be used is sprayed onto cereal flakes. So the next time we eat them with milk, they’ll stay crunchier for longer and we’ll finally have won the war against soggy cereal!
Bonnaillie estimates we could see casein packaging on store shelves within three years. The research group is currently creating prototype samples for a small company in Texas and they’re continuing to garner more interest in the product.
The whole field of edible packaging is still in its earliest stages but some forms of it are already on the market today. Startup Loliware makes “biodegr(edible)” – biodegradable and edible – drinking cups and last year secured funding after an appearance on the TV show Shark Tank. Another company based out of Hyderabad, Bakeys has been getting attention for introducing edible cutlery in India. Clearly, there’s a growing appetite for more environmentally friendly packaging.