Every once in a while, new technology emerges in the field of food manufacturing that offers the potential for a real breakthrough in the delivery of fresh, nutritious food products to consumers. Such is the case with a new edible food film that has been developed by researchers from the Oregon State University and its Department of Food Science and Technology. This food protective fiber or film, which looks a lot like plastic wrap, combines two ingredients -- chitosan, a fiber derived from shellfish, and lysozyme, which is essentially egg white protein. By combining these two ingredients in a process that is now being patented, researchers were able to make a thin film food wrap that could cover sandwiches, fruits, vegetables, or even coat foods by dipping the foods in a liquid film.
In other words, you could take fresh strawberries and dip them in a liquid soup made from chitosan and lysozyme, and the strawberry would be coated with a thin plastic wrap, protecting it against microbial infection as well as preserving more of its nutrient content. When it comes time to eat the strawberry, consumers could simply pop the strawberry and the thin-film wrapping in their mouths. The thin-film is perfectly edible and would merely add a little bit of fiber and protein to consumers' diets.
Both of these ingredients are natural anti-microbial compounds, meaning they resist infection from microbes, molds, and fungi. That would potentially enhance the shelf life of foods, which could either serve to deliver more nutritious foods to consumers, or reduce the cost of such foods thanks to reduced spoilage. Furthermore, this thin-film coating can be enhanced with additional vitamins and minerals such as calcium or vitamin E to boost the nutritional value of the food being protected.
Personally, I think this is outstanding technology. It is a fantastic marriage of food technology and health from the natural world. This is a fiber that has been essentially provided by nature. These researchers have cleverly taken ingredients from nature and recombined them in a way that is more compatible with modern food processing, manufacturing, and packaging protocols. There is no doubt in my mind that this product would enhance food safety while also boosting its shelf life. This would enable more healthful foods to be delivered to consumers in a more convenient format. Also, knowing what I know about chitosan and egg protein, it seems that this thin film would be quite inexpensive to manufacture and use, meaning it would add little or no cost to packaged foods.
There's another important reason why I am in favor of this sort of food technology, by the way. That's because the use of plastic packaging poses a health risk to consumers, and if we can move away from plastic packaging (which is manufactured from petroleum products) and move toward a food wrapper that is made from natural edible ingredients such as chitosan and egg protein, then we can reduce some of the health risks associated with the consumption of packaged, processed foods. So it is a tremendous health benefit in terms of avoiding plastic wrap and plastic packaging in the first place.
Very rarely do I get excited about food technology, because these days, most of the technology about foods has to do with making them more easily marketable or finding new ways to trick consumers into thinking they're eating good-tasting and good-looking foods, when in fact the foods are merely overly processed. But this is an exception to all of that. I believe this to be a promising food technology that has widespread potential for enhancing the health and safety of the American food supply.
The only potential drawback whatsoever from this is that chitosan, which is derived from shellfish, tends to absorb and bind with dietary fats. So if you ate a food item that was wrapped in this new film, some of the chitosan in the film would bind with the oils in the meal you just ate and prevent your body from absorbing them. This could potentially interfere in a very small way with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin D and vitamin E. But I think that overall, the amount of chitosan used in such a film is so small that this concern does not merit much discussion.
I'll be watching this food technology development and will hopefully be able to bring you more news on this in the months and years ahead.