Will We Soon be Eating the Film Along with the Food?

The May issue of TECHNOLOGY REVIEW had a brief article with the heading “Edible Wraps.” It described a new edible film made at the Agricultural Research Service of the US Dept. of Agriculture in Albany, CA, saying, “With the increasing demand for healthy snacks, manufacturers are grappling with ways to keep them fresh longer.”

The film can extend the shelf life of fresh foods, prevent them from turning brown, and make the packaging more recyclable. The film is a product of pureed fruits and vegetables fried and formed into a thin sheet of opaque film. More work will involve fortifying the film with tasty nutrients and adding lipids to make it more water-resistant. Some food companies have an interest in the product, and it could be available in supermarkets sometime in 2002.

This development of an edible film may not signal the immediate demise of PE, PP, polyester, and the other common packaging materials in use today. It does indicate that packaging will continue to evolve. Consumers are used to purchasing packaged food items. Users also are sophisticated enough to want better packaging so the contents are fresher, tastier, and more attractive. These requirements mean the components of packaging materials must provide improved barrier and other properties.

On initial consideration, pureed fruits and vegetables may not seem to be the ideal base from which to make a packaging film. However, delving deeper into the concept may reveal that it is an excellent idea.

Besides package requirements that relate to keeping a food in its most edible state, what is the next most important need today? Few people would deny this is package disposal.

The proliferation of packaging has made disposal a huge global problem. With no regard for others, consumers often will toss an empty package onto the ground or floor. Witness the litter along roads and on the floors of movie theaters. Respectable consumers that dispose of packaging properly also contribute to the need for adequate recycling techniques and the accumulation in landfills of materials that can decompose very slowly.

Neither littering nor recycling would be concerns with an edible package; the consumer would simply eat the package. A judicious choice of edible package and contents by a food packaging company could perhaps result in a total, complementary system.

Edible films are only one answer to the long-term demand for better packaging materials. Other approaches could be water-soluble films, films that spontaneously decompose at a specified temperature or range of temperatures, etc. Obviously, the first film would not provide water resistance, and the second film would not offer heat resistance. Or would they?

The trick to their success would be having them perform with all the necessary packaging properties of strength, barrier, resistance, etc. Their unique ability would come into play only under a very specific window of conditions. Tricky? Yes. Impossible? No. Someone will revolutionize the packaging industry in this way some day, similar to the first step by the Agricultural Research Service on the way to an edible wrap.

What we can learn from this report on edible wraps is that packaging will change. Those who lead the change will reap rewards and profits. Those who go along with the change will remain in business. Those who ignore the possibility of change will be out of business.

Converters may have a special interest in the use of the new edible wrap. When a converter now makes a web product that he cannot sell, he usually must “eat” certain costs associated with making the bad material. Additional costs might accrue from the delay induced by being unable to ship good material to a customer, disposal of the rejected material, etc. Most such costs could disappear when converting an edible wrap. Extra costs would simply be the liquid refreshments needed to accompany a party for the workers who made the bad material as they eat the mistake.

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