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Can you eat not just food, but the package it comes in?
A new milk-based film may mean the end of certain plastic food wrappings. But how feasible is edible food packaging really? - photo by Sarah Anderson
In a few years, your cheese may be wrapped in a film of milk a milk protein called casein, to be exact.

The kind of plastic thats wrapped around wedges of manchego in the cheese bin or the 16-ounce rib-eye in the chiller case is difficult to recycle, can add harmful chemicals to food, and is not all that great at preventing food spoilage anyway, Bloomberg reported.

But the casein-based film that U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers are working on is up to 500 times better than plastic at preventing oxygen from reaching food, due to the tighter mesh that polymerized proteins form.

Its also more effective than current starch-based edible packaging and protects light-sensitive food products, Bloomberg noted. Other additives such as flavorings and vitamins can make the packaging and the food it encases better tasting and more nutritious, it continued.

These films will be more health-enhancing than starches, USDA research co-leader Laetitia Bonnaillie said.

Bloomberg noted that some of the potential applications for this casein film include:

  • A dissolving packet for dried coffee or soup; you drop the packet in hot water, and it adds protein as it dissolves
  • Single-serve food wrappers for products such as cheese sticks
  • A sprayed-on coating for cereals, instead of the usual sugar coating that helps the cereal keep its crunch
  • Pizza box lining to prevent grease and stains
It will be many years before the USDA researchers can make the casein film commercially available, according to Bloomberg. But other edible packaging materials are already on the market, such as the edible skins that coat WikiPearls, which are little balls of ice cream and frozen yogurt made by WikiFoods that launched in the U.S. in 2013, noted.

Another product is edible cups, such as KFCs coffee cups made of hard cookie and lined with heat-resistant white chocolate or Loliwares gelatin-based drinking cups in flavors such as vanilla or cherry, National Geographic reported.

And there's some intriguing (if often unfeasible) product concepts on Pinterest, such as a pizza box made out of pizza.

But while these ideas are sustainable and help cut down packaging waste, it will likely be a while before they hit the mainstream food market or become available anywhere other than Whole Foods, stated.

Edible packaging still has that gross factor to some, especially those in Western countries, Saef Ahmad wrote in the essay Edible Food Packaging for the University of Texas.

And it might not be an entirely unreasonable perception. One challenge to edible food packaging is sanitary standards, as food goes through multiple "touch points" before it winds up on a stores shelf, The Culinary Exchange noted.

The casein-based film packaging aims to solve this by having a second layer of packaging, such as cardboard or plastic, around it, Bloomberg noted. But an outer layer of non-edible packaging ultimately defeats the purpose of trying to be sustainable with edible packaging, The Culinary Exchange stated.

The other issue edible packaging faces is pricing. Unless its cost-effective and easy to create, consumers will default to the less-expensive food products, The Culinary Exchange stated. Loliwares edible cups face that difficulty with a set of four cups costing $12, compared to cheaper paper cups, it continued.

Instead of edible food packaging, the development of more biodegradable food packaging and consumers shopping locally to cut down on the packaging that goes into shipping food might be better solutions, according to The Culinary Exchange.

While edible packaging is a cool idea, it doesnt really solve the issue at hand, The Culinary Exchange stated.
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