Here's a food wrapper you can eat The casein film can either be used as wrappers, like this, or it can be sprayed onto food. (USDA) (USDA/AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Here's a food wrapper you can eat
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Consider the cheese stick. It is not a beautiful food. It also isn't particularly healthy. Cheese sticks are about as commonplace as snack food gets.
 
Yet in the packaged version that ends up in so many kids' lunch boxes, each cylinder of mozzarella or cheddar is individually wrapped. And, every day, thousands of those little pieces of plastic wrap are thrown in the trash.
 
But that may not be for long.
 
Two researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have developed a film. It's made from a milk protein. The film can be eaten with the cheese. Which means that it may not be too long before we have a wrapper we can eat. It also could be healthy. Edible plastic exists. But it's largely made of starch, not protein.

"The benefit," says Peggy Tomasula, one of the lead researchers, "is that it can be consumed with the food so it gets rid of one layer of packaging, like with individually wrapped cheese sticks. It also gives you the opportunity to add vitamins or minerals or ways to block light damage to the food. And, you can add flavors. If you wanted to add a strawberry flavor to something, you can embed that in the film."
 
The key component in the innovative packaging is casein. It is a group of milk proteins with high nutritional value. Tomasula has been researching casein since 2000. She actually created a new version of the protein using carbon dioxide. She noticed that it wasn't very soluble in water. That made her believe it might be used to make a film coating that could extend the shelf life of dairy foods.
 
Tomasula kept exploring the potential of this research. When another scientist, Laetitia Bonnaillie, joined the USDA team, Tomasula asked her to see if dry milk could be used to produce the film. That would also allow them to make use of surplus milk powder during times when dairy farms are producing too much milk. Bonnaillie also focused on refining the product by making it less sensitive to moisture and improving the process by which the film was made so it could be more uniform and commercial.
 
At the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, they announced the results of their efforts. It is edible, biodegradable packaging. The casein film could either come in sheets, not unlike plastic wrap. Or it could be sprayed on as a coating. And, it's been found to be notably more effective at blocking oxygen than ordinary plastic wrap. So it can protect food from spoiling for a much longer period of time.
 
There would be some limitations, at least initially.
 
"This would mostly be for dairy products or foods that would likely be used with dairy, like cereal," says Tomasula. "We wouldn't put this on fruits and vegetables in a market. You couldn't do that because of milk allergies. There would have to be labeling to let people know it's milk protein."
 
Also, this wouldn't mean that all packaging would be eliminated for cheese and other dairy products. They would still need to be covered in some way, in a box or packet to keep the food from getting dirty or exposed to too much moisture. But dispensing with the individual wrapping around each food item could mean a lot less plastic would end up in landfills. By some estimates, it can take as long as 1,000 years for plastic to degrade. And, unfortunately, less than a third of the plastic Americans throw away actually gets recycled. 
 
The idea, said Bonnaillie, is to create different versions of the casein film. One might be very soluble, making it better suited for a product you dissolve in water. Another could be considerably less soluble so it would be more resistant to moisture and work better as protective packaging.
 
"We are trying things with the extremes," she says. "We've just started exploring applications. There are many more things we can do."
 
Say so long to sugar?
 
For instance, instead of tearing open a paper container to make instant coffee or soup, you could just drop a casein packet of the ingredients into water where everything would dissolve. Plus, extra protein would be added.
 
But food companies might actually prefer a spray version of the product. "That way they could store a mixture of the particular milk proteins in water, and then make the coatings and spray them on when they're processing the food," says Tomasula.
 
One possibility would be to spray the protein film on cereal, which generally is coated with sugar to keep it crunchy. "It could be fat-free, a healthier way to replace a process that's now largely done with sugar," says Bonnaillie.
 
Tomasula adds: "We're hoping that for something like meal replacement bars we can make the edible wrapping taste like chocolate. We could combine the ingredients together and provide a little more nutrition."
 
Tomasula and Bonnaillie say they've already been working with some companies, and believe their edible packaging could be on the market within three years.
 
Another good sign: Since their announcement in August, they've been contacted by what they describe as "two major companies."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why isn't this a “perfect” solution?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (149)
  • plaura-dav
    9/22/2016 - 05:08 p.m.

    In response to "here's a food wrapper you can eat," I agree that this could become a thing, in the next 5 years or so. One reason that I disagree is that it is not healthy for you to eat. Another reason is that it seems like you are eating trash. It says in the article that they would not be able to use this on any thing but dairy products. A third reason is that I would not feel comfortable eating it. Even though it sounds like a good idea, I think
    it is still gross.

  • pkate-dav
    9/22/2016 - 05:44 p.m.

    In response to "Here's a food wrapper you can eat," putting edible wrappers on everything isn't the BEST idea. It states, "This would mostly be for dairy products or foods that would likely be used with dairy, like cereal," says Tomasula." This says mostly dairy will give you a edible nutritious wrapper, but some people are allergic to dairy. Another reason this isn't a perfect solution is it says, "There would have to be labeling to let people know it's milk protein." This would be annoying because it limits the amount of food that you have if you have a dairy allergy. The final reason there are problems with this idea is it says, "Also, this wouldn't mean that all packaging would be eliminated for cheese and other dairy products." This doesn't make sense if you have some dairy products with and without the wrapper. Although this will eliminate the amount of plastic in our trash, scientists need to come up with move evidence that this is a good, well put together idea for everyone to enjoy!

  • hmadison-dav
    9/22/2016 - 08:24 p.m.

    In response to "Here's a food wrapper you can eat" I agree that we could eat the edible wrapper on cheese sticks. One reason I agree is that it would be very convenient to eat the wrapper. Instead of having to take off the wrapper you could just eat it. Another reason is that, according to the article,"It may not be too long before we have a wrapper we can eat. It also could be healthy." If it could be healthy it can benefit you. Like the phrase " the healthier the better." A third reason we could eat these edible wrappers is because it can keep it fresher. According to the article, "it's been found to be significantly more effective at blocking oxygen than ordinary plastic wrap, so it can protect food from spoiling for a much longer period of time." We can keep these dairy products for a longer amount of time than any ordinary wrapped product. Even though eating this edible wrapper might not be the greatest tasting thing, I think we could still eat these edible wrappers with our packaged dairy foods.

  • christophero-har
    9/23/2016 - 10:42 a.m.

    This is not a perfect solution because we are so used to looking at a wrapper as a non editable item and to see people all of a sudden eating them will take a while to adapt to. Plus wrappers can easily be contaminated in stores by customers and kids who could have a cold handling that editable wrapper!!! this is a very bad thing for items that do not come in a box like cheese and other items. While it is a innovative idea it still has some kinks to work out before i would try it.

  • nataliep1-dal
    9/23/2016 - 11:20 a.m.

    this is weird you can eat rappers now.this was a really good story . at first i thought is was a Korean rice cake but it was cheese.

  • caseyg-dal
    9/23/2016 - 11:24 a.m.

    Its helpful and gross because we can probably stop 30% of plastic from going in the ground.
    Its also kind of doesn't make sense because, who wants too eat a wrapper?

  • tiffanyh-ste
    9/23/2016 - 11:53 a.m.

    This is weird. I've ate some weird things like frog legs and chicken feet before but I'm not gonna try eating a cheese wrapper.

    • dalyn-dil
      10/06/2016 - 11:16 a.m.

      forg legs and chicken feet WHAT!! how does it taste and does it tatste gross??

  • christianb-ebe
    9/23/2016 - 02:31 p.m.

    An edible wrapper you can eat, sign me up that would save so much more land at a dump. This invention is incredible, and waterproof!

  • samuelw-ebe
    9/23/2016 - 02:32 p.m.

    I think it's a good idea that we should do an edible food rapper. I believe it's going to help us with pollution. Also like it said in the article it is going to lower landfills. I think that they should try to inforce this on most foods.

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