Sustainable material is set to prolong food shelf life

10 January 2022 | Muriel Cozier

‘Food safety and waste have become a major societal challenge of our times…’

Researchers from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, US, have developed a food packaging material which they say can kill harmful microbes on food. It is said that the ‘smart and sustainable’ food packaging could extend the shelf-life of fresh fruit by two to three days.

Publishing the work in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, the researchers explain that the packaging is made from a type of corn protein called zein, along with starch and other naturally derived biopolymers. Natural antimicrobial compounds, including thyme oil, citric acid and acetic acid are also used to make the packaging polymer.

The research team reported that in laboratory experiments, when exposed to an increase in humidity, or enzymes from natural bacteria, the fibres in the packaging release the antimicrobial compounds, killing bacteria such as E.Coli and Listeria as well as fungi. The researchers added that the packaging is designed to release very small amounts of antimicrobial compounds in response to the presence of additional humidity or bacteria, which means that the packaging can remain active for several months. The material has the potential for use across a variety of products including ready prepared meals, raw meat, fruits and vegetables.

Professor Philip Demokritou, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Health at Harvard Chan School, who is also Director of Nanotechnology and Nanotoxicology Centre, and Co-director of NTU-Harvard Initiative on Sustainable Nanotechnology said: ‘Food safety and waste have become a major societal challenge of our times, with immense public health and economic impact which compromises food security.’ Professor Demokritou added: ‘…Development of scalable synthesis platforms for developing food packaging materials that are composed of nature derived, biodegradable biopolymers and nature inspired antimicrobials, coupled with stimuli triggered approaches, will meet the emerging societal needs to reduce food waste and enhance food safety and quality.’

The researchers note that the packaging industry is said to be the largest, and growing, consumer of plastics derived from fossil fuels, with food packaging plastics accounting for the bulk of the plastic waste negatively impacting the environment.

DOI: 10.1021/acsami.1c12319

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