It’s 2019. You’re a packaging engineer at a food manufacturing company. Your company is about to release a new single-serving snack for on-the-go athletes. You are finalizing the specification for the film and see that the substrate says polyethylene. You change the substrate to casein and mark the specification as “approved”.
Now rewind three years.
Today, plastic is everywhere. We drink water out of plastic, our food is wrapped in plastic, we even eat our food with plastic. While plastic has become hard to avoid, the negative effects of this material have been criticized more than ever. Plastic harms our environment and is even believed to leach potentially harmful compounds into our food. The solution? Edible packaging made from milk proteins.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and American Chemical Society have been developing an environmentally friendly and edible packaging material made of casein. Casein is a film made from milk protein that research has shown to be 500 times more effective at protecting food from oxygen than the traditional plastic film. That means less food spoilage during transportation and in the retail environment.
But what does it mean for packaging engineers? Edible packaging brings the worlds of packaging and ingredients together. The film must protect the product from the environment while being safe for a human to ingest. Some will say this idea is ingenious, some will say it is crazy…who is right? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of casein film:
It’s more effective than other films:
As stated above, casein was found to be 500 times more effective at protecting food from oxygen than plastic film in a study performed by the USDA. Casein film has also proved to be much more effective than other edible/ biodegradable alternatives such as starch-based packaging. Casein film is less porous than starch-based film making it a more effective oxygen barrier.
It reduces packaging waste:
A large motivation behind developing this material was to reduce the amount of plastic used in snack foods, especially in individually wrapped string cheese. Most people do not recycle their snack packaging so the wrappers end up in the landfill. Whether or not a customer decides to actually eat the casein film doesn’t matter, since it is biodegradable and would still breakdown in a landfill.
But it’s not very durable:
All of the advantages of casein are well and good, but the fact that it will dissolve in water is not ideal. Luckily, the scientists who performed the USDA study experimented with adding citrus pectin to the film formula. This additive strengthened the casein in film and made the material more resistant to humidity and warmer temperatures.
But it isn’t hygienic:
While one of the pros about this casein film is that it can be eaten, it begs the question of whether or not it should be eaten. As stated in this article by USA Today, to keep the packaging clean and dry for consumption, products using them would have to be shipped in external containers similar to what is currently being used. But this does not guarantee that the packaging remains sterile throughout the entire distribution process.
Whether you are team casein or team plastic, one cannot help but be impressed with the creativity and innovation of the scientist behind this new film. Word has it that the film is being prototyped and is expected to hit the shelves in about three years. Until then, we have to remain content with our inedible and non-biodegradable string cheese wrappers.
Read more about casein film here.