Friday, April 27, 2012


Any consumer while eating a cone ice cream might be thinking of similar wraps like the cone in which ice cream is filled, in the cases of other foods also. Of course cone ice cream has an outer wrapper which needs to be peeled before having a go at the cone part. But as a concept edible wrappers or packaging materials is no more Utopian as there are a few stubborn players harping on them through development of such edible wraps for some food and beverage products. How far such developments will go or how much time it will take for the main stream industry to use them widely after development is a question that has no answer right now. While the development efforts are going on in full swing how the safety regulators are going to react to this new paradigm is another uncertainty. After all packaging is meant to protect the contents from undesirable chemical, physical and microbiological changes and there is always the possibility that the outer surface of such packs may have contaminating agents requiring them to be cast away. Against such a situation how can an edible packaging material be eaten unless protected with an inedible but functional wrapper? A difficult question that must be addressed before introducing edible wraps in a big way. Here are some of the nuances on the subject which provides interesting reading.

Leading the way (in publicity terms, at least) is the Dumbledore of food technology, Harvard wizard Dr David Edwards whose previous innovations include an "breathable" chocolate delightfully called Le Whif. He has now turned his attention to WikiCells - an edible membrane made from a biodegradable polymer and food particles - that can imitate "bottles" found in nature, such as grape skins. So far, Dr Edwards and his team at Harvard's Wyss Institute have created a tomato membrane containing gazpacho soup, an orange membrane filled with orange juice that can be sipped through a straw, a grape-like membrane holding wine and a chocolate membrane containing hot chocolate. He believes pretty much any flavour is possible. He recently told Harvard's campus newspaper Harvard Crimson that his team was working on a prototype bottle that had an eggshell-like hard coating in addition to the membrane that could be peeled off or eaten whole. "In the near term, we will be encountering WikiCells in restaurant settings," he told the paper. He then plans to expand WikiCells into shops and supermarkets. Meanwhile, Indiana-based MonoSol is hot on Dr Edward's heels. Its water-soluble casings are already widely used to make squidgy pods of washing detergent. The company has been developing tasty edible films that are strong enough to act as packaging until they come into contact with water and dissolve. Products in the pipeline include individual servings of hot chocolate and other drinks that you slip straight into cups, and single servings of flavoured porridge. The company currently is punting the product to major food brands and it could be on the shelves in a year or two. Closer to home, Leicester-based Pepceuticals last month won a £1.3m European research contract to develop an edible coating for fresh meat, which the company says could increase shelf life, reduce waste and do away with the need for oil-based plastic vacuum packs. It cites research that shows UK consumers spend more money on meat than any other food item, but waste an astonishing 570,000 tonnes each year. "The potential to apply an antimicrobial film in the processing factory should significantly prevent the deterioration of the fresh meat product, and save waste. It will revolutionise the look and feel of the traditional meat counter," the company claims (pdf)

A possible alternative could be use of functional bulk packs containing multiple units made with edible packaging materials for easy dispensing at the retail point. Then comes the question as to the consequences of carrying these 100% consumable products by the consumers to their home, storing them and consuming after a few days. These are issues that must be addressed before the concept can be put into practice. Probably edible wraps may fit into the format of fast food outlets which can dispense food preparations in edible bowls and plates. Such a step may reduce the need for reuse of plates after one service and avoid the consequent risks inherent. Taking the cone ice cream example, keeping the cone and ice cream separately and serving them together at the serving counter is frequently practiced. To expect long shelf life food products to be packed in edible materials for wide distribution may remain a pipe dream unless some dramatic break-through takes place to circumvent the logistical and safety problems cited above.


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