Imagine walking into a grocery store where everything is wrapped in edible skins, with no other packaging. You would be able to eat your ice cream or protein bar right off the shelf, its package or wrapper included! Think biodegradable skins and shells like those of fruits (coconuts, bananas, apples, etc.). Would you be afraid of germs? Would it make you nervous to eat the package, as well as the food product within, wondering what this “edible” package is comprised of? While edible packaging innovations are on the rise, countless uncertainties prevent consumers from being willing to give these new products a try.
Yet edible packaging may provide more sustainable products and a way to help the environment and limit landfill waste from packaging. Advances in food packaging technology could make food storage and preparation simpler, meanwhile curbing food and packaging waste, and reducing the leaching of chemicals from packaging into food. It doesn’t make sense that a food item consumed within minutes or seconds leaves behind a piece of packaging that lasts for years in Earth’s landfills.
While edible packaging may seem like a novel idea, it isn’t. In nature and the world around us, all sorts of produce come in their own protective skin. Potato skins are a delicacy, and lemon peels are both a water-repelling protective layer for the fruit and an aromatic and flavorful addition to baked goods and savory dishes. Other manmade foods also utilize the concept of an edible wrapper – sausages, mochi (Japanese ice cream in a soft, glutinous rice shell), and caramel candies filled with a soft center, among others. Up until the 20th century, most wrappers and films for packaging food items were biologically derived and many were edible. For example, yuba (soymilk skin) has been traditionally used in Asian countries since the 15th century. It wasn’t until the 20th century, when petroleum-derived chemicals replaced biologically derived resources, that we switched over to other packaging materials, such as plastic. The push to go back to bio-based packaging materials will utilize sources that are annually renewable. Edible packaging, films, and coatings can be made from carbohydrates, fats, or proteins, depending on their uses.
There are five categories of edible food packaging innovation: food wrapped in food, food paired with an edible/biodegradable container, a cup or container to be eaten with its beverage, packaging that disappears, and edible packaging served at quick-service restaurants.
1) Food wrapped in food
Stonyfield Farm, Inc. was one of the first companies to sell a product with edible packaging in stores. In 2014, they launched a frozen yogurt novelty item called WikiPearls™. These small, single-serve spheres contain a Stonyfield frozen yogurt center encased with an edible gel skin. The skin was developed by Harvard scientist David Edwards at “Le Laboratoire”, a lab in Paris, and Edwards founded his company, WikiFoods, in 2012 to commercialize the edible packaging innovation. The collaboration between Stonyfield and WikiFoods was the first to bring this novelty to market. Edwards describes his inspiration for the gel skin (called WikiCells) as coming from nature itself. Made of algae and calcium, WikiPearls are like a grape – wrapped in its own protective skin, and can be handled without melting and washed like a piece of fruit. They are like the human skin, reproducing the natural barrier that keeps everything inside the body. These edible food wrappers have no flavor, eliminate the need for plastic spoons or wrappers, and can be rinsed and eaten whole or, when peeled off and thrown away, will quickly break down. The flavor of the skins can be modified to complement what’s contained inside; for instance, the frozen yogurt pearls come in sweet flavors like banana-chocolate and strawberry-chocolate.
Stonyfield currently sells their frozen yogurt pearls in select Whole Foods either in pre-packed bags made from wood fiber (shown above), or over the counter at Wikibars (in Boston and Paris) where customers place the pearls in their own bags, egg cartons, or packaging. Stonyfield’s eventual goal of eliminating packaging for premade foods is still far-off. Their vision of one day having these individually packaged items sold in bulk bins, like granola or fruit, with consumers shopping with their own Tupperware or reusable bags is a utopian approach that retailers and shoppers aren’t ready for yet. So the question lies with food scientists, food companies, and retailers – how do we make products with edible packaging more feasible to sell, in addition to having the extended shelf life products packaged in plastic have? If grocery stores aren’t ready to sell these products package-free, what’s next? Food scientists continue to work at refining edible packaging to a point where it works as well as plastic. In addition, it takes a shift in consumer perspective to view items, such as the frozen yogurt pearls, more like fruit or baked goods, where shoppers don’t think twice about skipping the plastic bag. Shoppers don’t mind buying apples or bagels directly from a bulk bin at the supermarket, but buying from a display of frozen yogurt balls with edible skins is an entirely different experience that will take time for consumers to overcome the mental barrier. In the meantime, WikiFoods is working at partnerships with other companies and continues to innovate with further applications, such as refrigerated foods like cheese, or liquid foods like soups, juices, water, and coffee. Addition of natural antimicrobial agents, such as grape seed and green tea extracts, to the edible films/packages is also being researched to target concerns about hygiene and bacteria.
2) Food paired with an edible/biodegradable container
The Swedish company, Tomorrow Machine, is developing a series of packages that have the same life span as the food they contain. An “oil package”, made of caramelized sugar coated with wax, is cracked open like an egg to release the oil. The “smoothie package is composed of agar, a seaweed-based gel, and water, and withers away as you drink the smoothie. The “rice package” is made of beeswax and is peeled open like a fruit to get to the dry ingredients inside, such as grains or flour. All of these containers are both edible and biodegradable. While not yet available commercially, these packages are a sensible innovation that may launch after additional market research; once more consumers are ready for the development.
3) A cup or container to be eaten with its beverage
Multiple companies are joining the new trend in edible packaging innovations. Loliware, a US start-up company, launched a biodegradable and edible cup in early 2014, after an inspiring creation at a Jell-O competition in 2010. Their cups looks like glass, but taste like flavored Jell-O or candy. Loliware cups are made using agar from seaweed, along with other ingredients like sugar, tapioca starch, vegan gelatin, and natural flavors and colors. The main hurdle is the cost, as with many start-up businesses. As of September 2015, 4 cups cost $18 USD. Over time, brand campaigns and intrigued consumers may aid in greater availability and purchases of the edible cups. Fun flavors, like Madagascar vanilla, pink grapefruit, and matcha green tea, make the cups more exciting for parties and cocktails, where it’s all about a new drinking and eating experience. While it may be difficult for this product to become a mainstream, everyday item, it has potential as an indulgent item for special events – flavorful, high in sugar and calories, and giving the “wow” effect.
Other innovations include a product named “Ooho!”, which is an edible “water ball” designed to replace plastic water bottles. Its appearance looks like a jellyfish, and it is designed to replicate natural membranes like that of an egg yolk. After drinking the water, the outer layer (made using brown algae and calcium chloride) can be eaten or thrown away because it’s biodegradable.
4) Packaging that disappears
Monosol has launched a version of their water-soluble film (also used for Tide detergent tablets) as a polymer pouch that’s both edible and dissolvable. This pouch is a blend of food ingredients that is transparent, has no smell or taste, and completely disintegrates in water (cold or hot), leaving the food ready-to-eat. The company is also marketing the product to professional kitchens as a way to pre-measure ingredients and ensure consistency. The idea is similar to gel-caps used for pharmaceutical pills – consumers just have to get accustomed to the fact that the pouch is not plastic – it’s food. These films are currently used for items like single-serve instant coffee that brews when dropped into a cup of hot water, and single-serve cereal and oatmeal.
5) Edible packaging served at quick-service restaurants
Earlier this year (2015) KFC launched edible coffee cups in the U.K. made of cookie and white chocolate, and wrapped in sugar paper. While these cups may have given the “wow” factor and minimized use of paper cups, was it really a good idea? What about the extra cost and materials used to make the cookie? Is it safe to hold hot coffee, and will consumers even eat the cookie cup due to the extra calories? While innovative, the edible cups didn’t last long.
Here in the U.S., Coolhaus (an ice cream truck company) got its start with one truck in Los Angeles in 2008, and now has multiple trucks in Los Angeles, New York City, Austin, TX, and Miami, FL. Its distinction among other ice cream companies is its packaging – made of potato starch, their edible wrappers hold each ice cream sandwich, serving as both a wrapper and napkin. They also have the ability to print custom logos directly onto the wrapper using vegetable inks, which are perfect for special occasions and parties.
In Brazil, a fast-food chain called Bob’s, serves their burgers wrapped in edible paper. It provides a solution for customers not wanting to unwrap their hamburger before eating it, works as a napkin for a less-messy eating experience, and reduces paper waste.
At point-of-service restaurants, like the Wikibars or the last three quick-serve restaurants mentioned, consumers are more open to edible wrappers or packaging, as the item is prepared at the restaurant and eaten quickly after purchase. However, supermarket and pre-packaged items, such as the WikiPearls and Ooho! water pouches, are not as easily accepted. While consumers may not be ready for edible wrappers or skins for the outermost packaging, what about packaging inside other packaging? Like gum wrappers, individual servings of chips or snacks that come inside a larger bag, cereal inside a box, etc.? This may serve as a primary avenue to establish the use of edible packaging in the marketplace. Edwards, founder of WikiCells, hypothesizes that once consumers start craving these items with edible skins or wrappers, ultimately shoppers just want a good dessert or food item. In time, as more foods launch with edible packaging, consumers’ views on edible packaging may change. It just takes a step at a time. Wasting less food and packaging, and minimizing waste going to landfills, definitely seems to be an idea worth pursuing, allowing time to overcome the consumer challenges it may face.
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