Plastic food packaging may soon become a thing of the past. Earlier this week at the 252nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) presented a project they have in the works. The project? Edible food packaging.
Most foods you purchase in the grocery store come wrapped in plastic packaging. About 33 million tons of plastic is thrown out annually. Of the plastic that is discarded, only a small amount is recycled. Plastic is non-biodegradable and can take up to 1,000 years to completely decompose. This new food packaging will not only be edible but biodegradable as well.
And just what exactly will this new food packaging be made out of if not plastic? The answer is casein, which is a protein found in cow’s milk.
The Positive Side
At this time, there is some edible packaging already being used, but it is starch based. This new milk-based packaging looks like plastic cling film, but it is less stretchy. Unlike its starch-based counterpart, it has smaller pores, creating a tighter packaging that keeps more oxygen out, thus keeping your food fresher for longer. In addition, this new casein packaging is 500 times better than plastic at keeping oxygen out of food. Not only will this new packaging be edible, it will also be biodegradable, which in turn will help prevent food spoilage and waste.
Currently, more milk is being produced than consumed in the United States, so this could be a beneficial way to use some of the excess. The casein packaging is currently being tested on single-serve foods that are wrapped in plastic, such as cheese sticks. The next step will be a spray coating used on foods not individually wrapped in plastic, such as fruit and cereal. Cereal is coated with sugar, and researchers believe spraying cereal with the casein-protein coating will not only keep cereal crunchy longer, but will also cut down on the sugar content. The spray coating could also be used to line pizza boxes, as well as other food boxes, to keep grease from staining them.
The Negative Side
The casein packaging is dissolvable, making it useful for things like single serving packets of soup or coffee, but limiting the environments to which the food can be exposed to before it is eaten. Secondary packaging would be needed to prevent the packaging from getting wet and dissolving. If the packaging dissolved, the food could not only get dirty but spoil faster.
Introduction of this casein packaging will cut down on plastic waste but will in turn create a new problem. If people do not consume the casein packaging, it will get thrown away. When milk is dumped into waterways, it becomes a food source for aquatic bacteria. This causes a growth spurt among the bacteria, fungi and algae, while at the same time deprives the water of oxygen and essentially kills the fish and other species that live there.
In order to prevent people from throwing the packaging away, researchers are considering adding flavors to it. The packaging alone will add extra calories and protein to our diets. Flavored packaging may add even more calories.
The most obvious and dangerous downside to the casein packaging is how it will affect people who are allergic to dairy, specifically milk. The main proteins found in cow’s milk are casein and whey. They are also the two proteins most likely to cause someone to have an allergic reaction to dairy products. Now, when the packaging is being used on dairy products that someone with a milk allergy wouldn’t normally consume, such as cheese, it’s not much of a problem. On the other hand, if this does advance to the spray coating stage and is used on cereals and fruits, food that would normally be safe for people with a milk allergy will no longer be safe. This will make life even more complicated for people with a milk allergy. Not only will it limit the already limited selection of food that people with a milk allergy can eat, it will also increase the risk of cross-contact and cross-contamination.
Things that many people would probably never think twice about doing, or see no harm in doing, could now potentially be dangerous for someone with a milk allergy. My son, who is severely allergic to milk among other things, could not walk through a grocery store and absentmindedly pick up an apple. If he did, he would put himself at risk for a reaction.
People with milk allergies and parents of children with milk allergies would now have to be even more diligent in checking labels on food and researching the origin of food (produce in particular, since it doesn’t normally have a label) to determine if the food has been sprayed with casein. We will have to be even more vigilant when eating out, or when our children go pretty much anywhere outside of our homes.
As good as this new packaging could be for the environment, it is not at all a good thing for people with milk allergies. In fact, it could be potentially dangerous. At this time, the researchers behind the project have not made any comments as to how the casein packaging will affect people who are allergic to milk. While the packaging is still in the testing stages, researchers anticipate it should be in use and on grocery store shelves as soon as three years from now.