Brno researchers explore edible food packaging

A ban on single-use plastics was approved by the Czech Senate earlier this month and should come into effect in the autumn. The new legislation includes a direct ban on certain products, including plastic cutlery, straws, and food and drink containers. Now scientists in Brno are looking into an environmentally friendly alternative: food packaging that you can eat.

The new legislation leaves food manufacturers needing ways to sell perishable foods to customers in a way that is hygienic and where the food won’t go bad by the time it reaches the shelves, while still being sustainable.

Soňa Hermanová | Photo: VŠCHT

The Institute of Food Technology at Brno’s Mendel University offers one potential solution – edible packaging. Using proteins, lipids and other substances, scientists can make packaging for food products that is sustainable and environmentally friendly, as chemist Soňa Hermanová from the institute explains.

“There are three basic types of materials used to make edible food packaging. The first is edible biopolymers, which are mostly polysaccharides and proteins. The second group is made up of materials which are also of natural origin but aren’t made from large macromolecules – these are natural lipids such as waxes and oils. The third group is comprised of additives drawn from raw food materials.”

Photo: FoodTech MENDELU

Concretely, the first group could be, for example, dairy or soy-based proteins, pectin (a fibre found in fruits), or starch, e.g. from rice or potatoes; the second would be edible waxes and oils such as olive or oregano oil.

Each of these types of packaging is suited to a different purpose. The biopolymers act as a supporting layer, while lipids prevent moisture from getting in. The additives ensure that the resulting film is flexible and does not crack.

Ms. Hermanová says that the packaging will either be in the form of a separate film, or a coating that is applied directly to the surface of the food in the form of a liquid mixture.

“Our aim is to make it possible in the future to consume this edible coating directly together with the food. But even in the case where this isn’t logistically possible, the packaging will in any case be biodegradable.”

Researcher Barbora Smetanová of the Institute of Food Technology | Photo: FoodTech MENDELU

Creating edible packaging throws up a whole host of other issues that have to be dealt with – for example, food safety and hygiene standards.

“The European food policy requires that the packaging be as safe as the food is. So we have to prove, by means of reproducible studies, that our packaging does not have a negative impact on human health, does not trigger any reactions or change the composition of the food itself, does not change its taste, smell or look, and does not release any harmful components into it.”

Photo: FoodTech MENDELU

This research is still in its nascent stages – at the moment its potential is still only being explored in the laboratory. But Ms. Hermanová guesses that the first real-world application of her team’s research might be in biscuits wrapped in edible packaging that would be fortified with vitamins and other nutrients and given to patients in hospitals.