How to measure and analyse the texture of food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and adhesives.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Edible films as scrumptious packaging

Woman holding a grape between teethYummy! Edible Packaging! Eat a drink. Munch your entire yogurt, right through the cap. Indulge in a ball of mousse…

Edible packaging has entered the playing field and can be as tasty as the food it's protecting. Fruits are brilliantly designed since they come in their own protective packaging, so they're easy to toss in a bag and eat on the go. This is exactly the thinking behind the David Edwards WikiCells project.

Last year, Edwards, 51, a bioengineer at Harvard, launched WikiCells, which makes edible packaging for everything from yogurt to coffee and even alcoholic drinks. “We can basically surround any food or beverage with a skin like a grape skin that’s fully edible, and then consume it,” he says.

Inspired by the way a biological cell carries water, Edwards set out to design a similar vessel for food and drink. WikiCells products keep food fresh about as long as conventional packaging by using natural skins like apples and grapes, he says, with insoluble particles that keep out bacteria and other substances. Instead of skin cells, it makes its protective membrane out of a mix of particles from such foods as chocolate and orange, binding them with carbohydrates.

“If you look at architecture, design, and engineering over the last millennia, we’ve been super-inspired by nature, but it’s always the form,” Edwards says. The last 15 years, he says, have seen “this big move to not just mimicking form, but function.”

The Gourmet Packaging Experience
Consumers will be able to eat packaging within the next year, due to a manufacturer of water soluble polymer films Monosol and Harvard wizard Dr David Edwards and his team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute. Both say that the market for edible packaging has yet to be tapped. It will help reduce dependency on plastic as well as the overall amount of food waste. Known for products like dishwasher detergent pods, Monosol is working on edible packaging for items like hot chocolate, drink sticks and oatmeal.

The edible shells are constructed with tiny particles made of chocolate, seeds, algae, nuts, dried fruit, and other nutritious ingredients. This outer coating results in interesting flavor combinations, such as Greek yogurt covered in raspberry skin. The little balls of food look like something you might eat in outer space, but the taste-testers claim they’re delicious and fun… Sound unsanitary? Consumers can wash the outer covering, just like you would wash a piece of fruit. The skin keeps germs out, and the moisture inside. It’s food for the future.

Rice paper parcels
More familiar and well established film functions 
Edible films are not a new phenomenon; many of us are familiar with leaf gelatine and rice paper. But perhaps less well appreciated are the edible films that can be used as surface coatings to improve durability, enhance appearance, prevent moisture transfer or control the diffusion of preservatives from the exterior into the foodstuff. 

They can also be used to carry active food grade additives or functional ingredients to contribute towards the stability and nutritional value of a food. Edible films offer the promise of microbial stability, convenience, exciting new product developments and even environmental benefits. With the versatility and established safety of many gum polymers, novel applications for such films seem almost limitless.

The increasingly adventurous use of edible films can greatly enhance the organoleptic properties of many foods by incorporating flavourings, colourings and sweeteners into the edible packaging and may offer novel ways to pack individual portions of food. This opens up whole new areas of packaging for products such as soft fruits that for practical reasons are not currently individually wrapped.

The value of the U.S. market for disposable wrappers, dishware, and cutlery at fast-food restaurants, hospitals, and other facilities is $20 billion, and recyclable or compostable products are in demand. With so much focus on reducing packaging in the current climate, it may seem out of step to be highlighting opportunities for introducing packaging of individual portions. 

However, edible films and coatings have received considerable attention in recent years because of their great potential to reduce and simplify the packaging materials required for the protection of food products. They afford numerous advantages over conventional, nonedible synthetic polymeric packaging due to their biodegradability, inherent ability to be consumed as part of the goods and derivation from natural sources. If a third of the waste that’s dumped into landfills is packaging such as boxes, bags, and food wrappers, David Edwards has a solution: Just eat it.

An edible film has a lot to contend with – as a food component it should be tasteless, non toxic and compliant with global food regulations. As a packaging material it needs to be robust, meeting with predefined mechanical properties to protect food quality and maintain its integrity during handling and transportation.

What’s the testing solution?

Films testing: Films testing  Film Support Rig; Tensile grips film test
Film Support Rig; Tensile grips film test
Using a texture analyser, a range of measurements including tensile, shear and compression figures can be recorded. In addition to measuring stress and strain in a material, coating characteristics such as adhesiveness may be critical. The product may have to stick to a food, fix a coating or give a glossy finish, or indeed the function of the film may be to reduce adhesion.

Looking even further ahead into edible film packing
It is predicted that a whole range of new applications for edible films will become apparent in the coming months and years as a result of their versatility and potential to offer technical solutions to difficult processing and packaging food challenges. Stable Micro Systems works closely with the food industry to develop a wide range of innovative equipment to test every physical aspect of these edible films, opening up new and exciting applications in an industry where consumers have such high expectations of consistent performance. 

As the convenience, environmental appeal and microbial stability of food films is one of the biggest selling points for developing new products, it is likely that the future for edible films is limited only by the imagination.

Whilst Wikicells plans to expand into cafes and movie theatres, Edwards is also looking for other applications in the developing world, including a skinlike liquid containment system made with coconut flakes that can keep water fresh for days, he says. Later this year, WikiCell will launch its first commercial products: GoYum Ice Cream Grapes and Frozen Yogurt Grapes, with sturdy flavored skins designed to hang in grocery freezers in biodegradable cellophane and last for six months.  

If you wish to try some of Edwards' experimental edible packaging, you can sample them at the Lab Store Paris. So far, the feedback has been quite positive and now the issue is, as Edwards states, “stability in an uncontrolled environment and getting this out at a scale.”

WikiCells is a future-forward concept that could revolutionise the way we snack!

TA.XTplus texture analyser with bloom jar
The TA.XTplus texture analyser is part of a family of texture analysis instruments and equipment from Stable Micro Systems. An extensive portfolio of specialist attachments is available to measure and analyse the textural properties of a huge range of food products. Our technical experts can also custom design instrument fixtures according to individual specifications.

Watch our video about testing of materials
 Putting Packaging to the Test
 Materials and Packaging Testing

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