Meet a Surprising Plastic Alternative: Milk

What if you could have your packaging and eat it too? We’ve seen rice paper packaging on Japanese candies, but edible plastic? Thanks to researchers at the USDA, it’s not too far in the future.

And it’s not just an edible and environmentally-friendly plastic alternative; it’s actually better at keeping food fresh than petroleum-based plastics. It’ll be a few years before you see the material on shelves — don’t start chomping down just yet — but it represents a big revolution in the way we view food packaging.

Researchers are using casein, a protein found in milk, to make a flexible and very strong film — and they’re creatively calling it “casein-based film.”

There’s another food-based ingredient, too. Citrus pectin helps the material stay strong and flexible without dissolving.

And for all you vegans out there who aren’t thrilled at the thought of replacing petroleum — blech — with animal products — not great — I have good news for you: Researchers are working on making synthetic casein by cloning the necessary DNA and harnessing fermented yeast to produce it.

What a time to be alive.

So why is casein-based film so great?

For starters, it’s not made out of petroleum, which is a pretty big deal given how ubiquitous petroleum-based plastics are in the food packaging world.

Petroleum-based plastic may be sturdy and indestructible, but it’s also … indestructible. Well, almost. It takes hundreds of years for plastic to biodegrade, which is why it’s rapidly accumulating in the environment. We keep making it, using it and throwing it away.

Even with recycling efforts, it’s an uphill battle. Some cities and states are actually starting to crack down on the use of plastic products, especially plastic shopping bags.

These films break down quickly, if you don’t feel like eating them, and they’re made from renewable components. Better yet, the material is mostly protein, and it’s easy to add other nutrients.

Theoretically, your plastic wrap could also have nutritional value,  which might be especially useful in places where people have trouble getting the nutrition they need. If chowing down on largely flavorless plastic doesn’t sound that great, don’t worry — the researchers say they can add flavorings.

Here’s where things get even cooler, though.

One of the prime spoilers of food is oxygen, which is a little hard to avoid. The amount of oxygen that reaches food once it’s wrapped is dependent upon the pore size of the plastic. Petroleum-based plastics, as well as starch-based alternatives, don’t do a great job of keeping oxygen out — but these films do.

In fact, casein-based film is about 500 times better at keeping oxygen out, which could represent huge savings all along the supply chain.

One of the reasons food waste is such a significant problem is that it can be hard to prevent spoilage, especially with fresh fruits and vegetables — you know, like those cucumbers that come inexplicably wrapped in plastic, despite the fact that nature already gave them a perfectly good wrapper?

A product that reduces spoilage, offers nutritional value and breaks down readily if no one wants to have a nibble is a huge breakthrough for food science.

These films aren’t just handy for wrapping blocks of tofu. An aerosol version could be sprayed onto crisp, crunchy foods to keep them from getting stale and/or soggy — I’m looking at you, cereal. It may also have potential for single-serving food products and instant meals: Drop a sealed parcel of plastic-wrapped food into some hot water, stir and eat!

Photo credit: Andy Atzert

179 comments

Jim V
Jim Ven4 months ago

thanks

SEND
Jerome S
Jerome S4 months ago

thanks for sharing.

SEND
Chen Boon Fook
Chen Boon Fook9 months ago

noted.

SEND
Leong S
Leong S9 months ago

Thank you for sharing

SEND
Chun Lai T
Chun Lai T10 months ago

Thanks for the info

SEND
Beth M
Beth M10 months ago

ty

SEND
Beth M
Beth M10 months ago

ty

SEND
Beth M
Beth M10 months ago

ty

SEND
Beth M
Beth M10 months ago

ty

SEND
Beth M
Beth M10 months ago

ty

SEND