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Edible Plastic Wrap for Food Kills Bacteria While It Flavors Your Burger

Tuesday, May 06, 2008 by: Cathy Sherman
Tags: food packaging, plastic wrap, health news

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(NewsTarget) The Japanese started it with candy wrappers you could eat. Many readers may remember being fascinated by eating the wrappers containing Asian candy, even with Mom's permission! For almost ten years, vegetarians have happily consumed medications and food supplements in vegetarian capsules. Now, food science chemists are on their way to making available a wrap for meats that can be eaten.

The demand for non-animal based capsules on the part of vegetarians prompted companies such as Pfizer to explore vegetarian capsules about ten years ago. Since then, they and other companies have produced capsules made out of carrageenan, a seaweed extract; pineapple, red grapevine and wheat germ; fish gelatin mixed with plant extracts; and a non-gelatin, vegetarian-approved, beta-carotene beadlet.

Such capsules, naturally rich in nutrients such as bromelain, tannins, flavonoids and vitamin E, provide a bio-available supplement of vitamins and minerals through digestion of the capsule. The gelatin-based capsules dissolve fairly quickly, from three to fifteen minutes in stomach acid, and in about fifteen minutes in water alone. Of further benefit is the efficient oxygen barrier provided by the gelatin.

Other developments in edible food films came about with their use in sushi, for customers who disliked the seaweed wraps. Similar papers have replaced breath mints for some, as they dissolve in the mouth and leave breath much improved.

The latest breakthrough in edible food wrap comes from chemists and food scientists at New Jersey's Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Professor Kathryn Uhrich and her crew have gone a step further in the quest for the best wrapper you can eat, by also making it anti-microbial, flavor enhancing and nutritionally beneficial.

The researchers employed natural anti-microbial agents derived from sources such as cloves, oregano, thyme and paprika to create novel biodegradable plastics that have the potential to block formation of bacterial biofilms on food surfaces and packaging. For example, thymol is one substance used, which is oil extracted from thyme. Adipic acid is another substance, which in food grade form is often used to help foods gel.

A biofilm is a slimy matrix which results when a variety of bacteria congregate on a surface. This kind of bacterial community is often described as being poly-microbial because it harbors multiple versions of infectious, disease-causing bacteria, such as Salmonella and E. coli.

"We mated natural substances with controlled-release, biodegradable polymers that could inhibit or prevent the formation of bacterial biofilms," explained Ashley Carbone, a graduate student at Rutgers who constructed the polymer compounds that were tested.

"The natural substances we chose have general anti-microbial activities against many different kinds of micro-organisms," Uhrich said. "Therefore, the polymers into which we incorporated these natural substances have the potential to affect a much broader spectrum of micro-organisms than organism-specific drugs." This also helps battle the growing problem of drug-resistance of many bacteria forms brought on by the overuse of antibiotics.

Michael Chikindas, associate professor of food science at Rutgers and a co-investigator on the project, commented that the new process benefits consumers in several ways. "They will be eating foods that are safer for longer periods of time; they will not be expanding antibiotic resistance; and they will not be adding to their bodies' synthetic chemical load."

Of course, this is assuming that the continuing research finds that making such polymers from food does not result in harmful substances. Testing and experimentation are still being done, and while the researchers are presuming their wraps will be safe, they have also stated that they need to prove this.

As Dr. Uhrich says: "Although we know that the polymers are synthesized from naturally occurring compounds, the FDA requires us to prove it. So, again we are very, very sure that the polymers will be safe but as good scientists we can't say '100% safe' until the appropriate tests are performed."

Meanwhile, we already have some edible food coatings and wraps on the market. In 2003, researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Lleida in Spain announced that they had developed an edible coating for fresh fruits and vegetables that kills deadly E. coli bacteria in addition to boosting flavor. A natural antibacterial agent in oregano oil provided the antibacterial quality, while apple puree provided the necessary sugary sticky base and extra nutrients.

This relatively new coating is thought to provide a long-lasting, potent alternative to conventional produce washes. One of several oils tested, the oregano oil killed more than 50% of sample bacteria in three minutes at concentrations as small as 0.034%. If consumers can get used to the oregano taste, the anti-bacterial coating could be used by produce manufacturers as a spray or dip for fresh fruits and vegetables.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture food chemist working on the coating, Tara McHugh, Ph.D., also worked to develop an earlier food wrap. These wraps were designed to wrap sandwiches and to protect meat in home freezers, but not to kill bacteria. According to McHugh, they also add to a healthful diet because each wrap is equal to a serving of a fruit or a vegetable.

The wraps, which are available in broccoli, carrot, tomato, mango, peach, pear, apple, papaya and strawberry, can also provide a glaze or a sauce for cooking. For example, a tomato or ketchup-flavored wrap could be used for hamburgers when frozen, and when they are defrosted the whole thing can be cooked together, wrap and all.

Food wrappers have come a long way. From the dissolvable-in-the-mouth Asian candy wrappers to E. coli-killing meat wrappers, we may soon realize added flavoring, safer meat, and extra nutrients all provided by the wrapping around the meat.

As Dr. Ulrich noted, when entering her laboratory recently, she was struck by the fragrant smell of curry. "When I asked where lunch was being served, Ashley explained there was no food in the lab and I only smelled the new polymers she was making."


Kathryn Uhrich, PhD, Professor of Chemistry, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey (2007, August 24). "Scientists Preserve and Protect Foods Naturally". ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 3, 2008, from (http://www.sciencedaily.com)


About the author

Cathy Sherman is a freelance writer with a major interest in natural health and in encouraging others to take responsibility for their health. She can be reached through www.devardoc.com.

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