In March 2016, ‘America’s Healthiest Grocery Store,’ Whole Foods, trialed an exciting new concept in grab-and-go food packaging. In a handful of stores including the now infamous location in Oakland, CA, the niche retailer offered pre-peeled oranges, ‘conveniently’ packaged in a single-use plastic tub. In a photo that was destined to go viral across a variety of social media platforms, blogger Michelle Cehn of WorldofVegan.com called out the problem inherent in relieving a fruit of its naturally biodegradable packaging and placing it in a landfill-bound plastic box. The story garnered the attention of a number of major news networks from Fox to the Huffington Post, with commentators eviscerating Whole Foods for the ill-conceived project. The pre-peeled orange snacks were subsequently withdrawn.
And the public outrage engendered by these boxed fruit was based on the fact that plastic food containers, so ubiquitous in our society, constitute a significant threat to the environment. It is estimated, for example, that approximately 8.82 million tons of plastic waste fails to reach a recycling station and ends up in our oceans every year. Yes, that is every year. And what’s worse is that scientists project that, by 2050, we’ll be seeing more plastic in our waters than fish. But even with that in mind, biodegradable alternatives to traditional plastics have been greeted with decidedly mixed reactions. In an article published in The Guardian (October 2016), Jacqueline McGlade, the UN’s chief scientist, is quoted as saying that, in terms at least of aquatic plastics, she considers biodegradable plastics as ‘well-intentioned but wrong’ since they fail to break down in ocean conditions.(1) In addition to the question of degradability, other alternatives such as home-compostable plastics are expensive to produce, with the cost being passed on to the shopper. And given the continued reluctance or inability of many consumers to pay a premium for organic as opposed to conventional produce, the cost of mainstreaming bio-friendly alternatives to plastic seems unsupportable.
Does this mean that unless we come up with some novel, creative, and cost-effective ideas we are doomed to continue drowning in our own plastic waste?
Not according to design student and entrepreneur Rodrigo García González. Working with a team at Imperial College London, González has pioneered the development of an edible water bottle which he calls the ‘Ooho.’(2) Horrified at the approximately 50 billion (yes, that is billion with a ‘b’) plastic bottles used and discarded by Americans each year – that is 2.5 million bottles per hour – González used the culinary process of spherification to flip the process of creating portable potables upside down. Instead of using approximately 1.5 million barrels of crude oil to manufacture plastic bottles which are filled with water, González developed the concept of freezing the water first before applying a coating of calcium chloride to form an external gelatinous layer. After a subsequent bath in a brown algae extract, the water ball is encapsulated within an edible, biodegradable membrane and is safe to imbibe. The durability of the membrane is comparable to that of the skin on fruit, making it relatively safe for transportation and storage. But aside from issues of cost, scalability, and stability, the key to further developing this technology is in creating broader public acceptance. In trials, reactions were mixed, with some testers likening feel of the ‘bottles’ to breast implants or even jellyfish. Clearly there is still some work to do in creating customer demand for this technology.
But although they hog more than their share of the spotlight, it is not just plastic-based food and beverage containers that are causing a strain on our environment. According to an article published by Bloomberg, a third of the waste dumped into our ever-increasing landfills is paper products such as wrappers, boxes, and wax bags that bypass recycling centers due to contamination by foodstuffs, grease, and oils. And to combat this trend, Harvard Professor of Bioengineering, David Edwards, initiated the WikiCell project, developing a technology that ‘envelopes foods and beverages in natural edible packages [that] is very similar to how nature packages fruits and vegetables.’(3) Among the most popular developments were gazpacho soup contained within a tomato skin, orange juice captured in an orange-flavored pouch, and a grapeskin bag containing wine.
The WikiCell systems are comprised of a dual wrapper layer with the first ‘skin’ composed of plant-based particles from nuts, seeds, chocolate, and fruits combined with nutritive calcium, and either chitosan (a polysaccharide derived from crustaceans) or alginate (a plant-based material). The formulation creates a washable, non-permeable electrostatic gel with the same tensile strength as natural fruit. The second layer can either be an edible substance requiring a simple rinse prior to consumption or it can be a biodegradable material that requires the consumer to remove it in the same way as peeling an orange. Winning the coveted Special Jury Award for Innovation at the Salon International de l’alimentation (SIAL) in Paris, France, Edwards positions his food wrappers as more than just a container. They are also a vector for delivering supplemental nutrients in a convenient, digestible, and earth-friendly form. Early test items include yoghurt, cheese, ice-cream, and beverages such as coffee and juices. For use in developing countries, a variety made of coconut flakes that can keep liquids fresh for days will enable aid workers to bring water to drought-stricken regions or for use in natural disasters. And for the rest of us: ‘Picture a martini wrapped in an olive that you can stick in your pocket and rinse off when you’re ready for a toast,’ says Edwards.(4) There are days when most of us could clearly see the usefulness of such a product.
But Wikicell is not the only strong player in the game.
In addition to this base technology, Edwards has also pioneered WikiPearl, a protective coating inspired by nature which is impenetrable to both water and air. Says Edwards: ‘Imagine for a second the skin of a grape or a coconut. WikiPearl skins are inspired by the way nature packages fruits and vegetables. These skins are delicious protective coatings against water loss and contaminant entry, and potential carriers of effective and functional nutrition. The WikiFood technology protects the wrapped food or beverage without exposing it to unnatural materials or chemicals while also delivering benefits of health, convenience and a food experience like nothing else.’(5)
And there’s more. While the use of digestible starches is not a revolutionary new idea – rice paper, for instance, has long been used in baked goods – the new generation of edible films are taking it to the next level. Engineered to contain food grade additives, the films will act to both stabilize the product and behave as functional foods in and of themselves. Take, for example, the ‘invisible’ food coating developed by Pepceuticals in the United Kingdom. Conceived as an alternative to traditional oil-based primary packaging for meat products, the peptide coating incorporates important antimicrobial properties that will extend shelf life during distribution and storage. The transparent biologically-active film looks and feels like the surface of the meat and Pepceuticals hope that its neutral format will present little obstacle to widespread consumer adoption. Equally, in Brazil, the fast food chain Bob’s is plowing the same furrow, using edible wrappers for their burgers, although the reaction to the move has been mixed.
Furthermore, it’s not just public reaction that needs to be carefully gauged. As with any item for public consumption, the safety of edible packaging is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under sections 201(s) and 409 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Under these sections of the Act all components of a food packaging material must be certified as meeting the criteria for Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status or must hold either a Threshold of Regulation (TOR) exemption or a Food Contact Substance Notification (FCN). Taste-free, non-toxic, and meeting food governance standards on a global stage, edible food packaging of whatever kind would be subject to significant regulation and restriction.
So, assuming it meets this comprehensive FDA regulation, what are the other consumer benefits of edible packaging?
According to manufacturer MonoSol, based in Merrillville, IN, the use of water-soluble film in packaging ingredients for culinary preparation allows for absolute accuracy in, and reproducibility of, results. In other words, the guaranteed consistency of a pre-determined outcome. In addition, the use of pre-screened, ready-measured ingredients could be a benefit to large-scale caterers such as hospitals, schools, or prisons. The standardized recipes and nutrition delivery could take some of the guesswork out of the process of feeding people en masse and the effective quarantining of ingredients also makes for a safer approach to dealing with potential allergens. So from the perspectives of contamination control, nutrient delivery, and convenience, the technology looks attractive.
But one problem does still persist. Even if we shift our focus from petroleum-based products to more eco-friendly alternatives, we do still need to address the scale of the problem ingrained in our modern throw-away society. Even if a product is biodegradable or recyclable, it still requires resources both in its composition and in terms of the energy required in manufacturing, distribution, and re-processing. And the key to maintaining our stock of natural resources and to diminishing our ever-increasing garbage piles resides not solely in recycling what we use, but also in not using it in the first place. As Jenna Jambeck, associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia, says: ‘We want all our materials kept in a circular management system to recapture the valuable resources in them.’(6)
Do you enjoy a martini only if it’s shaken, not stirred? Or would you love to pull one out of your pocket, ready coated in an olive? Let us know your thoughts on the new generation of edible food – and beverage – containers…