Tasteful new wrapping can protect produce
A novel type of packaging may soon catch the eyes–and taste buds–of grocery store shoppers. Food scientists have just developed packaging films with the color, taste, and scent of apples, strawberries, peaches, carrots, or broccoli.
The edible wraps extend food’s shelf life, says Tara McHugh of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Albany, Calif. The materials, made from fruits and vegetables, can reduce the number of layers of synthetic packaging needed around perishable food items and also provide an extra punch of nutrients and flavor, she says. The wraps might also become a new market for cosmetically unacceptable produce, she adds.
Soon, food processors might wrap cut apples in an apple film to prevent browning, McHugh suggests, or protect bananas in a sweet strawberry film and broccoli in an edible broccoli bag. The 21st-century shopper might even purchase a pork roast in a peach pouch that melts into a glaze when baked.
“[The wraps] taste just like fruit or vegetable,” says McHugh. “You’re adding an additional flavor to the food product–and a healthy component as well.” She introduced the materials and preliminary data on their protective properties last month in Honolulu at the 2000 International Chemical Congress of Pacific Basin Societies.
McHugh created the wraps by pureeing each fruit or vegetable in her laboratory, diluting the substance with water, and then pouring it onto Teflon plates. As the slush dried, it formed a film that she then wrapped around a piece of cut fruit. In the future, films could be designed in the shape of pouches, she says.
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McHugh’s testing indicates that her wraps offer an oxygen barrier comparable to cellophane. For example, a wrapper made of dried apple puree protected cut apples from the browning that ordinarily results from contact with oxygen in the air.
Because the new films didn’t provide much of a barrier to moisture, McHugh is currently adding fatty molecules to see if they increase the water resistance.
“We’re not necessarily trying to replace all synthetic packaging, but we could possibly simplify that synthetic package,” she says. Indeed, foods often need multiple layers of plastic and paperboard packaging to keep out oxygen, moisture, and microbes, notes John Krochta, a researcher at the University of California at Davis who studies food coatings. Those different layers are difficult to recycle together, he says.
“[An edible wrap] can reduce the amount of packaging, and it can make the remaining packaging more recyclable,” says Krochta. A consumer could eat the wrap, or “at the very least, you could put it right down the disposal,” he says.
However, Krochta speculates that most people may purchase food items with the new wrappers because the product will offer flavor, color, and nutrients that plastics and existing edible wraps do not. “I think that Tara’s work has potential for a new market,” he says.