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Eat your cake — and the wrapper, too

Edible, biodegradable food packaging can help cut down on plastic

By Alison Stein

It’s usually easy to convince someone to take a bite of an ice cream sandwich. It’s harder to get them to munch on the wrapper. 

Yet that’s what Natasha Case did when Coolhaus, her Los Angeles-based gourmet ice cream company, debuted in 2009.

Case didn’t want her food-truck operation generating a lot of trash, but she needed a wrapper for easy handling. She didn’t want to use plastic, but paper gets soggy fast.

Hunting online, Case discovered a new kind of wrapper, made mostly of potato starch. It looks like thick, highly textured tracing paper, or very thin, slightly translucent Styrofoam. It’s bendable, storable, water-resistant enough, yet easily compostable. It’s durable enough to print on with vegetable dyes.

It’s also entirely edible.

The material, intended for cake-decorating, also works well as a wrapper, Case says: “You protect your fingers with it while you’re eating your ice cream sandwich, and then pop it in your mouth.” The wrapper is tasteless, she says — and she ate a lot of them in the company’s early days, demonstrating them for skeptical customers. (Children, she notes, didn’t need much convincing.) “It’s not only environmentally friendly, but cool and memorable,” she says.

Coolhaus’s edible ice cream sandwich wrappers are just one innovation in the rapidly expanding field of edible food packaging. In university, corporate, and government laboratories, new materials are being derived from digestible substances, including potatoes, tapioca, mushrooms, milk, seaweed, and algae.

The global edible packaging market was valued at $700 million in 2016, and is projected to reach over $1 billion in 2023, according to Allied Market Research.

That’s nowhere near the $500 billion worth of regular, petroleum-based plastic produced worldwide in 2019, according to Grand View Research. Standard plastic became a ubiquitous food-packaging material for a lot of practical reasons: it’s flexible, light, strong, resistant to water and oxygen, and relatively inexpensive. It also resists breaking down when exposed to common food ingredients.

“The thing that makes plastic great is the fact that it doesn’t break down — and that is also the problem with using it,” says Lizzie Wright, an industrial designer in San Francisco. The world dumps the equivalent of a garbage-truck-full of plastic into the ocean every minute. If plastic consumption doesn’t decrease, then by 2050, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the plastic in the oceans could outweigh the fish.

Researchers into new food packaging materials hope their products’ benefits will help wean the world off at least some of its plastic habit. They also hope to entice food manufacturers to undergo a costly retooling of their existing packaging process by emphasizing additional benefits, including enhanced nutrition, longer shelf life, and perhaps increased resistance to some food-borne bacteria.

One day several years ago, Peggy Tomasula, the research leader of the U.S. government’s Agricultural Research Service, wrapped a piece of cheddar cheese in an experimental edible film she had been developing. Then she brought it to her desk to take a photo.

“I just left it on my desk,” she says, “for about five years.”

The cheese became a conversation piece at the government lab in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania. “Nothing happened to it,” Tomasula says. “You’d expect it to dry out and crack, but it just discolored a little bit. It seemed to be in a steady state.”

Coatings made from fish or chicken protein reduced fat uptake by 60 to 80 percent, with little effect on taste.

Tomasula’s invention looks and acts like standard kitchen plastic wrap — except it’s made from casein, a milk byproduct, and it’s 500 times more impermeable to water. Her many rigorous studies of this new wrap have confirmed its potential preservative power, though the anecdotal example of the cheese on her desk may the best illustration of it. She speculates that the cheese on her desktop may have stayed intact by drawing moisture from the casein film itself. Now, she says, cheese manufacturers have high interest in bringing her new material to market; they like the idea of using a milk byproduct to package their dairy product.

Other researchers who create edible food packaging have shown similar creativity.

Reza Tahergorabi, a professor of food science at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, has developed a film out of sweet potato starch and added thyme essential oil, a natural antibacterial.

In one study, Tahergorabi put salmonella and E.coli bacteria on some spinach, then wrapped the spinach in the film. “We didn’t detect any bacteria at the end of the storage,” he says. The film extended another spinach sample’s shelf life by eight days, without affecting texture or taste — and yes, Tahergorabi ate the spinach to find out. He’s gotten similar results in studies with shrimp and eggs. (Tahergorabi says that while he’s tested the film on common foodborne illnesses, he hasn’t done enough research to know whether it would also protect against viruses.)

A lot of the edible packaging under development could offer a similar benefit that its conventional plastic equivalent doesn’t. That’s particularly true when the packaging is turned into a consumable spray or dip. Tomasula, for instance, has sprayed her milk-based invention directly onto cereal flakes. “The flakes would look the same, but they’d be stronger, and stay crunchier in milk,” she says.Besides satisfying the nation’s sweet tooth, another reason why cereal flakes are coated with sugar today is to prevent breakage. She thinks the spray could also keep products such as nuts and nutrition bars fresher longer.

Spray biofilms under development may even reduce fat uptake in fried foods. Coatings made from fish or chicken protein reduced fat uptake by 60 to 80 percent in fried fish or fried chicken, respectively, with little effect on taste. “So it tastes like fried food, but it has less fat,” says Tahergorabi. Using the byproducts of a food to create its own packaging has a certain poetic symmetry, and the limited range of ingredients is good for people with food allergies. 

Just because a packaging is technically edible, scientists caution, doesn’t mean people should eat it. “A lot of what people call edible packaging is shorthand for super-biodegradable packaging,” says Quinault Childs, research director at the Food Futures Lab at Institute for the Future, a think tank in Palo Alto, California.

That category includes seafood-derived straws that were created by the U.S. company Loliware, as well as packaging made out of beeswax and sugar — made by the Swedish company Tomorrow Machine — that can be cracked like an egg or peeled like an orange. While you could theoretically and laboriously eat these products, you likely wouldn’t want to.

Some edible packaging is beginning to get more recognition and more ingestion. During the 2019 London Marathon, more than 30,000 runners at the mile-23 hydration station received “Oohos” — edible capsules derived from seaweed, filled with energy drink. Runners bit into the capsules, developed by the London-based company Notpla, to release the liquid. They could either swallow the skin or spit it out, in which case it would degrade at a rate similar to a fruit peel.

But food scientists say widespread use of food-based packaging is still far away. The most formidable obstacle is cost. It’s still cheaper to produce regular plastic than biomaterials. “Everything is geared for working with plastic packaging right now,” says Childs. “Our machines are tooled for that. Supply chains are geared for that.”

“Everything is economics,” says Tomasula. “If there’s even a penny’s worth of difference of price, it can make a difference.” Her research now focuses on showing companies how to use new biomaterials at scale.

Childs also wonders if consumers will accept new kinds of food packaging. Food allergies and religious restrictions could limit edible packaging’s appeal. Biomaterials look like the plastic products we’re accustomed to, but we’ll be asked to relate to them differently. “People are often afraid of new technology,” says Childs. “Food is so personal.”

But as plastic piles up in landfills and oceans, more consumers and companies want alternatives. “The more we see photos of seabirds choking on plastic straws, the more it becomes an issue in the public eye,” says Childs. And in a world newly primed to value hygiene, edible packaging with antimicrobial benefits may feel especially useful. Soon, we may find that after we eat our cake, we’ll eat the package it came in too.

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Alison Stein is a writer based in New York City.


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