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Edible food packaging is the future, Harvard developer claims

By Joe Whitworth , 17-Feb-2012
Last updated on 17-Feb-2012 at 10:26 GMT

US scientists have developed a food packaging technology that could eliminate the need for plastic containers, and the lead developer told FoodProductionDaily.com that it could hit the market inside 12 months.

WikiCells is a new edible packaging technology that allows individuals to transport and eat food without the need for plastic containers.

Thus far, the team has developed packaging to hold pumpkin soup in a spinach membrane, lemon juice in a lemon membrane and melted chocolate in a cherry membrane.

Like apples and oranges…

Professor David Edwards (pictured), a biomedical engineer from Harvard University who is leading the research project, told FoodProductionDaily.com WikiCells were the “future of food packaging”, and that the edible packaging was already on sale at Paris ‘invention bar’ FoodLab, part of concept design outlet Lab Store, which he founded.

The Harvard University-based team that has developed the technology said that comparisons could be drawn with existing foods, for instance, an apple where the content is shielded by a protective outside layer.

“We are likely a year away from WikiCells entering the marketplace in a limited way,” he said. “It will take time but the future of food packaging is clearly the current reality of the apple and orange,” Edwards added.

The novel packaging comprises a membrane consisting of charged particles (of edible substances) bound by electrostatic forces; this surrounds a liquid, foam or solid food and is then wrapped in an edible or biodegradable hard shell.

In Edwards’ words: “Liquids are engulfed in membranes made primarily of natural food particles, and these membranes may (or may not) be enclosed in edible shells.

“You can wash the shell before eating. Or just peel it off and eat the soft membrane and eat/drink the inside material. The 'inside material' can be liquid, foam, emulsion or solid.”

Stability issues to address

However, Edwards warned that the team still needed to address medium and long-term stability issues.

Currently we have good room temperature stability in the day time frame and long-term stability in a frozen time frame. We have intermediate stability in a refrigerated time frame,” he said.

“We are currently seeing a room temperature stability similar to that of yogurt, but we will improve it as we progress.

He added: “As we achieve better stability than that of the fruit today we will likely make certain trade-offs in terms of natural contents and edibility. So one question WikiCells raises is the desirability of mass production of long-lived containers.

“We started with an exhibition with French designer Francois Azambourg. The inventions underlying the technology began there -- in the spring of 2010. We are working hard on the technology now mostly in Paris with a new startup company in the USA.

“We have mostly focused on the culinary possibilities -- aiming to get the taste and experience right. In our FoodLab in Paris, at Le Laboratoire, part of the Lab Store, we offer pumpkin soup in a spinach membrane, or lemon juice in a lemon membrane, or melted chocolate in a cherry membrane (black forest torte)”, Edwards said.

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