Scientists are increasingly looking at developing ways to replace plastic, particularly in single-use, high volume, disposable applications. Food packaging is one of these areas. Can edible food packaging provide a solution?
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The use of plastic packaging for food products contributes significantly to plastic waste, of which 14 million tons end up in our oceans each year. By 2050, it is predicted that there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish, which will be a serious threat to our ecosystems and well as our health.
Plastic pollution enters our bodies through the food chain, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. A growing body of research has linked exposure to microplastics (the tiny, worn-down fragments of plastic that contaminate the environment). The problem of plastic waste must be addressed with a sense of urgency in order to protect the future of our planet and the health of our generation and those to come.
Three of the United Nation’s 17 sustainable goals are dedicated to tackling the problem of plastic waste: responsible consumption and production, climate action, and life below water.
It is difficult to quantify how much plastic food packaging is entering the environment each year but it is estimated that it accounts for over half of the waste in US landfills. In recent years, numerous research teams around the world have designed novel edible food packaging solutions with the aim of replacing plastic packaging with a sustainable alternative. For several years, scientists have been exploring which materials may be useful in edible food packaging. Here, we discuss the latest advancements.
Latest Edible Food Packaging Innovations
Biopolymers are natural polymers sourced from agricultural and marine sources and are suitable for edible packaging because they are biodegradable and can be edible (although not always, therefore, selection of the appropriate polymer is key).
Currently, three categories of biopolymers are being explored for edible food packaging: those extracted from biomaterials (e.g. starch, cellulose, proteins, and marine prokaryotes), those by chemical synthesis of biomaterial-derived monomers, and those produced by microorganisms (e.g. polyhydroxy butyric acid, hydroxyisobutyrate, and hydroxyvalerate copolymers)
Edible, Biodegradable Food Packaging - Headline Science
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Proteins, polysaccharides, and composite materials have emerged as attractive options for use in the development of edible food packaging because they are cost-effective and scalable. For a biopolymer to be considered food-grade, it must meet certain standards in terms of oxygen/water vapor permeability, tear and tensile strength, and other factors.
To date, numerous types of proteins have been investigated for use as materials for edible films, including gelatin, casein, whey protein, wheat gluten, soy proteins, corn zein, keratin, collagen, peanut, cottonseed, egg albumin, and myofibrillar proteins.
Current advancements that have been made include the use of carrageenan-based coatings as a wrapping material for chicken breast fillets that have been minimally processed. The material, developed in 2018, has strong vapor barrier properties and reduces the weight of the fillets, which has an impact on transit costs and the associated carbon footprint.
Milk proteins are emerging as a promising material for edible packaging. A group of researchers has been developing packaging with these proteins since 2016, they are powerful oxygen blockers and, therefore, help to prevent food spoilage. This type of food packaging is still in development but has the potential to be available in the coming years.
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In 2021, a study published in the Journal of Food Engineering demonstrated how naturally-occurring seaweed biopolymer sodium alginate was effective as a film, which was also water-soluble and almost completely dissolved within 24 hours.
Also in 2021, scientists developed an edible film out of onion for the purpose of packaging beef burger patties. The films delayed the growth of microorganisms and stabilized and improved various parameters that contributed to the burger’s overall level of consumer acceptance.
Another study published in the same year explored the use of a chemically modified form of chitin, chitosan, as an alternative to plastic food packaging. The material is derived from the exoskeletons of sea creatures and presents a promising avenue to be investigated.
Bioactive peptides have also been under experimentation in the development of edible food packaging, as have sugar molecules. Studies published last year demonstrate the potential of these materials, although further development is required.
Finally, in 2022, a study published in the Journal of Food Engineering reported that basil oil (Ocimum basilicum), a medicinal and aromatic plant, when placed in the center of electrospun biofibers of zein and alginate, forms the basis of an excellent material suitable for use as edible packaging.
Environmental Impact of Switching Plastic Packaging for Edible Packaging
Overall, there are many materials currently in development as edible food packaging. In the next few years, we will likely see many edible films emerge on the market to replace plastic packaging. The environmental impact could potentially be huge if scientists are able to develop suitable replacements for all types of food packaging.
References and Further Reading
Daniloski, D., Petkoska, A., Lee, N., Bekhit, A., Carne, A., Vaskoska, R. and Vasiljevic, T., 2021. Active edible packaging based on milk proteins: A route to carry and deliver nutraceuticals. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 111, pp.688-705. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0924224421002168
Dede, S., Sadak, O., Didin, M. and Gunasekaran, S., 2022. Basil oil-loaded electrospun biofibers: Edible food packaging material. Journal of Food Engineering, 319, p.110914. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/356973580_Basil_oil-loaded_electrospun_biofibers_Edible_food_packaging_material
Soares, K., Souza, M., Silva-Filho, E., Barud, H., Ribeiro, C., Santos, D., Rocha, K., de Moura, J., Oliveira, R. and Bezerra, L., 2021. Effect of Edible Onion (Allium cepa L.) Film on Quality, Sensory Properties and Shelf Life of Beef Burger Patties. Molecules, 26(23), p.7202. https://www.mdpi.com/1420-3049/26/23/7202/htm
Yerramathi, B., Kola, M., Annem Muniraj, B., Aluru, R., Thirumanyam, M. and Zyryanov, G., 2021. Structural studies and bioactivity of sodium alginate edible films fabricated through ferulic acid crosslinking mechanism. Journal of Food Engineering, 301, p.110566. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0260877421000911?via%3Dihub
Zhang, S., Luo, L., Sun, X. and Ma, A., 2021. Bioactive Peptides: A Promising Alternative to Chemical Preservatives for Food Preservation. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 69(42), pp.12369-12384. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.jafc.1c04020