With the goal of producing environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic food wrapping and containers, a Rutgers scientist has developed a biodegradable vegetable paint that can be sprayed on foods, protecting against disease-causing microorganisms, spoilage and transportation damage.
The scalable process can reduce the harmful environmental impact of plastic food packaging as well as protect human health.
said Philip Democrito, director of the Center for Research in Nanosciences and Advanced Materials, and the Henry Rutgers Chair in Nanoscience and Environmental Bioengineering at the Rutgers School of Public Health and the Institute for Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. At the same time, we asked ourselves, ‘Can we design food packaging with functionality to extend shelf life and reduce food waste while promoting food safety? ”
Democrito added: “What we have come up with is a scalable technology, which enables us to turn biopolymers, which can be derived as part of the circular economy from food waste, into smart fibers that can directly encapsulate food. This is part of the new generation, “smart” food packaging and “the green”. ”
The research was conducted in coordination with Harvard University scientists and funded by the Harvard Nanyang Technological University/Sustainable Nanotechnology Initiative in Singapore.
Their article, published in the scientific journal Nature Food, describes the new type of packaging technology using a fiber based polysaccharide/biopolymer. Like the webs that Marvel’s comic book character Spider-Man throws, the filamentous material can be woven from a hairdryer-like heating device and “shrink-wrapped” over foods of various shapes and sizes, such as avocado or sirloin steak. The resulting material that coats food products is strong enough to protect bruises and contains antimicrobial agents to combat spoilage and disease-causing microorganisms such as Escherichia coli and Listeria.
The research paper includes a description of a technology called concentrated spin-jet spinning, the process by which the biopolymer is produced, and quantitative evaluations showing that the wrap extends the shelf life of avocados by 50 percent. The paint can be rinsed off with water and degrades in the soil within three days, according to the study.
The new packaging aims to address a serious environmental problem: the spread of petroleum-based plastic products into the waste stream. Democrito said efforts to reduce plastic use, such as legislation in states like New Jersey to eliminate the distribution of plastic shopping bags in grocery stores, could help. But he wanted to do more.
“I’m not against plastic,” Democrito said. “I am against petroleum-based plastics that we keep throwing out there because only a small part of it can be recycled. Over the past 50 to 60 years, during the Age of Plastics, we have put 6 billion metric tons of plastic waste into our environment. They are slowly humiliating there. And these tiny fragments make it into the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe.”
Mounting evidence from the research team at Demokritou et al. points to potential health effects.
The paper describes how the new food-coating fibers bind with natural antimicrobial ingredients – thyme oil, citric acid and nisin. Researchers on the Demokritou research team can program such smart materials to act as sensors, activating and destroying bacterial strains to ensure food arrives uncontaminated. This will address the growing concern about foodborne illness as well as reduce the incidence of food spoilage, Dimocrito said.
Reference: Chang H, Xu J, Macqueen LA, et al. A high-yield coating with biodegradable antimicrobial pullulan fibers extends shelf life and reduces weight loss in the avocado model. natfood. Published Online Jun 20, 2022: 1-9. doi: 10.1038/s43016-022-00523-w
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