Recently, scientists at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the US have developed bacteria-killing biodegradable food packaging that addresses two major concerns of the food industry today – food waste and eco-friendliness.
Using this packaging can help keep food items stay fresh for a long period without getting spoiled.
In one experiment, the team wrapped fresh strawberries in the new packaging and compared their freshness against strawberries packaged in conventional plastic boxes.
The strawberries stay fresh for seven days before developing mold in the new packaging, while the strawberries that were kept inside the plastic boxes went only four days before turning moldy.
The packaging is made from a corn protein called Zein, starch, and other naturally derived compounds.
These materials were infused with a cocktail of natural antimicrobial compounds such as the oil from citric acid, and thyme. Unlike regular plastics, these materials are biodegradable.
When the material detects any rise in enzymes and humidity levels from harmful bacteria in the food, the fibers will release a tiny amount of antimicrobial compounds that will eliminate those bacteria. Thus keeping the food fresh.
Dangerous microbes such as E. Coli and listeria from the foods are the major cause of food poisoning, intestinal tract, and diarrhea.
The antimicrobial compounds contained in this packaging can kill these bacteria and common fungi that cause foods to turn bad quickly.
So, this packaging will ensure increased food safety too.
“Food safety and waste have become a major societal challenge of our times with immense public health and economic impact which compromises food security,” said Professor Philip Demokritou, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Health at Harvard Chan School.
“One of the most efficient ways to enhance food safety and reduce spoilage and waste is to develop efficient biodegradable non-toxic food packaging materials,” he added.
According to Professor Mary Chan, the director of NTU’s Centre for Antimicrobial Bioengineering, this packaging can be used for holding food items like fruits, vegetables, fish, raw meat, and other ready-to-eat meals.
“Vegetables are a source of wastage because even if they are refrigerated, they will continue to respire, leading to spoilage after a week or two,” said Professor Mary Chan.
“With the anti-microbial packaging, there is a chance to extend their shelf life… and also make the vegetables and fruits look fresh with time,” she said.
Even if this new packaging material is in its development phase, the researchers behind the packaging are already excited about what their invention could do for the food industry.
First of all, the packaging directly addresses the problem of food waste, with an extra two or three days of shelf life potentially offering both businesses and consumers the opportunity to save money and food.
In addition to this, the packaging is also praised as a strong alternative to plastic boxes, bags, and cartons because it is biodegradable – especially when used in scales.
As it stands, the world’s climate and pollution problems are heavily contributed by the use of plastics, including plastics used to package and transport food.
As per the university’s statement, 55 percent of Singapore’s household waste is made up of plastic and one-third of it comes from food packaging.
As such, it’s pretty obvious that the new material could help to alleviate some of the problems associated with food packaging today.
It was even more impressive to note that these compounds were released only when necessary – a feature that minimizes the risk of antimicrobials being consumed by consumers.
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“The smart release of antimicrobials only when bacteria or high humidity is present provides protection only when needed, thus minimizing the use of chemicals and preserving the natural composition of foods packaged,” said Mary Chan, director of the NTU Center for Antimicrobial Bioengineering.
“This invention would serve as a better option for packaging in the food industry,” said Professor Mary Chan.
Their research has been published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.
This bacteria-killing biodegradable food packaging development is a part of NTU’s 2025 Strategic plan to promote sustainable food and technological solutions.
They’re also currently working on developing other ways of creating biopolymer-based smart food packaging materials, with food safety and quality retention the main goal.
This is a promising development, and one of hopefully many more alternatives to regular plastic packaging. However, it may be a while before their creation becomes commercially available.
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