It’s edible, it feels like plastic wrap, it’s extremely effective at preventing food spoilage, and it’s made from milk protein. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created a new, biodegradable food packaging that should be protecting products on store shelves before the year 2020.
While plastic wrap is convenient, it is extremely difficult to recycle and can even allow harmful chemicals to leech into your foods. Additionally, plastic wrap is a significant cause of plastic waste in our environment and oceans. The waste generated from individually wrapped cheese slices, for example, is almost equal to the amount of food that the plastic-wrap contains! Edible alternatives created from starch already exist, but they are porous and less effective at preventing food spoilage than plastic wrap.
To combat this issue, the USDA looked to a milk protein known as casein. While initial formulae were too brittle, the addition of citrus pectin allowed it to become as strong as traditional plastic wrap and adding salt allowed it to resist moisture. The only competitive drawback is its lower elasticity (20% versus plastic wrap’s 100%). It is also up to 500 times as effective an oxygen barrier as plastic wrap, is resistant to humidity, and is resistant to high temperatures.
In addition to these competitive advantages, the casein-wrap is edible and made almost entirely from protein. If it is being used in a fashion where consumption is expected, vitamins, probiotics, and nutraceuticals could be added to the formula. It is currently tasteless, but adding flavours would be a trivial task. This edible formula could be an alternative for many other food-related uses that are currently unhealthy or wasteful. Some examples include: replacing the (recently-banned) perfluorinated substances to coat pizza boxes and other containers for greasy food; replacing sugar as cereal coatings to prevent sogginess; and self-contained, dissolvable flavour packets for instant-noodle packages.
I’m looking forward to seeing casein-wrapped products on store shelves (and pizza boxes) as evidence of another victory in the ongoing war against plastic.