Plastic food packaging has two serious disadvantages: it leads to the accumulation of millions of tonnes of plastic waste in the environment, and food packaged in oil-based packaging and containers is more prone to microbial contamination. A team of scientists from Rutgers University and Harvard has developed a biodegradable and antimicrobial food packaging solution that could end up with plastic packaging.
In the study, published this week in the journal Nature Foodscientists describe organic food packaging in spray formwhich forms a plant-based coating on the surface of the products. This coating protects food from microbial contamination and any damage that may occur during transport.
Food protection spray
Associate Professor Philip Demokritou said: “We knew we needed to get rid of oil-based food packaging and replace it with something more sustainable, biodegradable and non-toxic, and at the same time we asked ourselves: ‘We can design food packaging with a function that extends shelf life, reduces waste and at the same time will they increase their security? ‘”
Scientists have developed pulplanate biopolymer – a naturally occurring polysaccharide obtained from the fungus Aureobasidium pullulans – and water (as solvent). Both of these components were processed using FRJS (Focus Rotary Jet Spinning) technology, which converted the mixture to antimicrobial pullulan fibers (APF).
He explained the FRJS technology in a democritic way: “Rotary jet spinning is widely used for biomedical applications and tissue engineering and has been used for the synthesis of fiber-based coatings and direct coating of food substrates.” In the next step, the researchers tested APF against microbes such as Aspergillus fumigatus and Escherichia coli, which commonly infect fruits and vegetables.
APF as an ideal solution
They found that pathogen populations declined after APF administration. Experts also applied antimicrobial fibers to avocados. They noticed that the APF coating prevented the growth of pathogens on the fruits and protected them from spoilage and damage. This extended the shelf life of the avocado by approximately 50%.
While plastic packaging often releases harmful chemicals into food and takes more than 400 years to biodegrade, APF coating is biodegradable. The non-toxic biopolymer of natural origin does not affect the quality of the food and previous studies emphasize that humans can digest pullulan. According to scientists, it can be easily washed from the food with water and its complete decomposition in the soil takes only three days.
Democrat, excited by these results, wrote: “What we’ve come up with is a scalable technology that allows us to convert biopolymers that can be obtained in the circular economy from food waste to fibers that can directly wrap food. It is part of a new generation of “smart” and “green” food packaging. “
Big problems of plastic waste
The world is currently facing major problems with plastic waste, which enters our bodies in the form of microparticles (microplastics) and causes various health problems. In addition, plastic packaging is also one of the causes of microbial contamination and chemical toxicity. Researchers claim that foodborne pathogens cause more than 600 million cases of the disease each year.
A report by the British Waste and Resource Action Program (WRAP) shows that plastic packaging also leads to a higher amount of food waste and reduces the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. The organization states that 100,000 tons of food end up as waste each year, with plastic packaging weighing approximately 10,300 tons.
APF has the potential to completely stop the trigger that plastic food packaging is causing on our planet. Hopefully, this method will soon become the new standard in food packaging. When asked what the plans are to expand the use of APF, Demokritou answered: “We plan to find start-up investors for APF and other food safety inventions.”