HomeLifestyleHealth & FitnessNew Plant-based Wrap Keeps Fruit Fresh Longer and Germs Free

New Plant-based Wrap Keeps Fruit Fresh Longer and Germs Free

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New research proposes an alternative to petroleum-based food packaging that is more environmentally friendly, biodegradable, and safe for human consumption.

A scientist at Rutgers has made a biodegradable, plant-based coating that can be sprayed on foods to protect them from pathogenic and spoilage microorganisms and transportation damage. The scientist’s goal was to make plastic food wrap and containers that are better for the environment.

The scalable approach could help safeguard human health while reducing the negative environmental impact of plastic food packaging.

“We knew we needed,” says Philip Demokritou, “to get rid of the petroleum-based food packaging that is out there and replace it with something more sustainable, biodegradable and nontoxic.” 

“And we asked ourselves at the same time,” adds Demokritou, director of the Nanoscience and Advanced Materials Research Center, and the Henry Rutgers Chair in Nanoscience and Environmental Bioengineering at the Rutgers School of Public Health and Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, “‘Can we design food packaging with a functionality to extend shelf life and reduce food waste while enhancing food safety?’”

“And what we have come up with is a scalable technology,” Demokritou continues, “which enables us to turn biopolymers, which can be derived as part of a circular economy from food waste, into smart fibers that can wrap food directly. This is part of new generation, ‘smart’ and ‘green’ food packaging.”

The study was carried out in collaboration with Harvard University scientists and was supported by the Harvard-Nanyang Technological University/Singapore Sustainable Nanotechnology Initiative.

Their paper, published in the scientific journal Nature Food, offers a new type of packaging method based on polysaccharide/biopolymer fibers.

The stringy material, similar to the webs cast by the Marvel comic book character Spider-Man, may be spun from a heating device resembling a hair dryer and “shrink-wrapped” over items of various shapes and sizes, such as an avocado or a sirloin steak. The final substance is strong enough to prevent bruising and contains antibacterial compounds to combat spoilage and harmful germs like E. coli and listeria.

The research paper talks about a process called “focused rotary jet spinning,” which is how the biopolymer is made. It also gives numbers that show the coating made avocados last 50 percent longer on the shelf. According to the study, the coating may be rinsed off with water and dissolves in the soil after three days.

The goal of the new packaging is to solve a serious environmental problem: the large number of plastic products made from oil that end up in the waste stream.

Demokritou believes that efforts to reduce plastic use, such as the ban on single-use plastic supermarket bags in New Jersey, are beneficial. However, he felt there was more he could be doing.

The new fibers encasing the food are infused with naturally occurring antibacterial substances such as thyme oil, citric acid, and nisin, according to the paper.

Researchers on the Demokritou research team can program these smart materials to act as sensors, activating and killing bacterial strains to make sure food is safe to eat.

According to Demokritou, this will address the growing worry about food-borne illnesses while also reducing the likelihood of food spoiling.

Image Credit: Getty

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