Vanishing Packaging: A Tech Scouting Sample Report

By Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D., Nerac Analyst

Originally Published January 20, 2017

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A client, Mia-Moo Unlimited, who produces single-serve organic food products, wants their packaging to be environmentally responsible. The company approached Nerac for assistance with identifying and exploring options. Prior Nerac project reports for this client included a) conducting a survey of recycling potential for packaging at the point-of-use, and b) conducting research into the use of bio-based polymer and compostable packaging materials. Both project requests were interested in their respective environmental footprint. In the project request discussed in this article, the client seeks to understand the potential for edible or water-soluble (as opposed to compostable which was covered in a prior report) packaging. One of their scientists had mentioned an article about edible packaging made from whey, was intrigued and wondered if it is commercially available.

The Nerac project request: Please provide an overview of edible packaging, its pro’s and con’s for use in food contact applications, what is commercially available and the key companies producing edible packing.

Technology Summary: Packaging

Water soluble films have been used for decades in a wide variety of industries. These materials quantitatively encase ingredients in the cleaning and laundry sector, agrochemicals and fertilizers as well as hospitals and healthcare. The primary component of these films is polyvinyl alcohol. Edible films are a subset of water soluble films. An edible film is defined as a thin layer, which can be consumed, coated on food or placed as a barrier between the food and the surrounding environment. Although the terms films and coatings are used interchangeably in the industry, there is a significant distinction. In this report, films are preformed and freestanding, whereas, coatings are applied directly to the food product. The edible coatings segment is vibrant and has grown to over 1000 companies and an excess of $100 million USD in annual sales and continues to grow. Edible films for spacers in food separation and food contact wrappers and pouches have yet to reach their potential.

Components of edible films include proteins, polysaccharides, and lipids. Food-grade polymers such as polyvinyl alcohol are also used to compensate for deficiencies in the other components. Protein base edible films include collagen, gelatin, wheat gluten, soy protein, corn zein and casein (whey). Polysaccharides edible films include pectin chitosan, alginate, starch, cellulose, and dextrin. Lipid films include fatty acids, acylglycerol and waxes.

There are advantages and disadvantages for each of the materials used in these films. The trend in edible film development today is toward composites of more than one edible film type, such as polysaccharides and lipids, or proteins and lipids, and even blending with polyvinyl alcohol to optimize the desired property for a particular application. Lipids provide excellent water vapor barrier and can reduce moisture loss. However, they do not provide a gas barrier and form weak films. Proteins and polysaccharides are great gas barriers but provide limited water vapor barrier due to their hydrophilic nature. Combining the two can be a challenge since one is hydrophobic and the others are hydrophilic. These are challenges that have slowed progress in commercialization of edible films.

Regulatory issues also can be an impediment for edible film applications. Not only does the edible film have to match the properties of the petroleum-based films in present use, but they must also comply with regulatory restrictions. In Europe, edible packaging materials are included in the Regulations EC 1331/2008 and EU 234/2011 for food additives, enzymes, and flavorings. Under these regulations, edible packaging must be used according to the particular food where they are allowed (fruits, cheese, bread have different additives that are allowed in each case). In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists the additives that can be used in food products in a document that also contains the approved specific applications of such additives as coating and only the ingredients enumerated in that document can be utilized (FDA 2011). This brings home the point of the nature of edible packaging. Should such films be considered ‘edible’ or naturally water-soluble, food contact packaging? Packaging materials used as films/wraps and not eaten would follow food contact material guidelines which are less restrictive.

Edible packaging will need to be able to perform as well as their more conventional counterparts in every single aspect to be widely accepted. They also have to compete with cost and there is still the ‘gross’ factor with edible packaging. However, for content that can be removed from packaging materials and used, where the edible packaging material can be washed down the sink with hot water, the gross factor can be minimized.

It is important to note that the use of edible films must be transparent in labeling to inform the type of coating (animal, milk, peanut, wheat gluten) due to potential allergic reactions, intolerances to certain proteins and vegetarian and religious preferences. This represents another barrier to entry for commercialization for some of these materials.

The environmental footprint of producing these edible materials remains unknown. There are no reports of lifecycle analyses for any of these edible films categories, unlike traditional petroleum-based films. Also, any claim that edible packaging would replace and eliminate packaging and their waste is deceiving. The eco-designing approach must concern the product/packing pairing and the entire packaging system, including primary, secondary and tertiary packaging. Because the modern edible films are hygroscopic, secondary packaging becomes a critical component and, at best, would represent a zero-sum game for the inclusion of edible (or water soluble) packaging into a company’s low-waste food packaging plans.

Companies and Commercial Products

Enterprises that have ventured into the edible packaging arena are limited. Watson Foods produces edible films, but these are not suitable in present form for food contact packaging due to the humidity challenge as well as oxygen permeability. The company sells its films to various businesses that produce film impregnated oral hygiene products (breath strips) and other flavored and infused strip products. The use of edible films in the pharma sector is also a driver of this technology.

Quantum Designs produces Wikifoods, edible products that are a cross between coating and packaging. The packaging, or shell, consists of small food particles, calcium, and the natural polymers chitosan or alginate. Like chocolate covered cherries, this edible skin can encase liquid, foam or solid centers. The company proposes that this skin, or packaging, can be edible, like a chocolate covered cherry, or peelable as one would remove and dispose of the skin of an orange or banana. Stonyfield ™ Organics utilizes this packaging for an innovative commercial yogurt product called Wikipearls. The challenge both companies are facing is convincing the consumer to purchase an edible product with no packaging. There are attempts for zero-waste grocery stores in Berlin, Germany, Austin, Texas USA, and elsewhere that sells bulk products where consumers brought their reusable packages and bottles and scooped out the amount of product they desired. Whether this will catch on more broadly has yet to be determined, however, edible skin-coated products would be a natural fit to that business model.

The company, Quantum Designs, claims that they have a patent pending on their innovation. A search of the patent literature identified the patent application (US20090142303, Methods and compositions for dried cellular forms) filed in 2006 and assigned to Harvard University, with Quantum Designs founder David Edwards as one of the inventors. This application has been abandoned as of 2012.

LoliWare is a company that creates solid, edible and highly attractive agar-based cups. The company notes that the cups are 100% plastic-free, gluten-free, gelatin-free, BPA-free, non-GMO, all natural, non-toxic, and FDA approved. Flavoring and sweetener are added to make this seaweed-based cup attractive to eat. The present cost is a significant factor in these cups as each cup has a retail price of $4 USD. The intellectual property surrounding this product includes four US patent applications as well as associated World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) filings. Of the four US patent applications, two have been abandoned:

  • US2014356490 (Edible cup and method of making the same)- the assignee, has requested a continued examination after several final rejections from the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
  • US2016324207 (Edible material) – is under review by the USPTO.

Monosol has developed VivosTM, an edible film pouch. The packaging film is odorless, tasteless and only dissolves and disappears in hot or cold water or other liquids. This limits applications to products that are solid or powder. Potential uses include powdered fruit drinks, workout supplements, instant teas and coffees, gravies, soups, hot chocolate, pasta, cooking aids, dyes, enzymes, vitamin fortifiers, and yeasts. Thus, it has significant potential in the commercial food preparation industry where pre-measured pouches can improve the consistency of the final food product from batch-to-batch, substantially reduce waste and save time. The bags come in multi-component as well as single component units. It offers good oxygen barrier properties and has robust mechanical properties. Like Quantum Design’s option, if marketed for consumer use, secondary packaging would be required if the package is to be consumed with the food.

Monosol has a significant patent portfolio in water-soluble films. Two US patent applications relevant to edible water-soluble films (US20090162516: Edible, water-soluble film; US2014199460: Edible water-soluble film) as well as international filings under the same family. The composition of the films includes a water soluble resin, compatibilizer, and sugar alcohol plasticizer. The resin can be polyvinyl alcohol, modified polyvinyl alcohols and polysaccharides or copolymers of any of these. The 2009 patent application was abandoned in 2015, and a final rejection of the 2014 patent application was sent from the USPTO in 2015, and the present status of that patent application is that it is on appeal.

Monosol Vivos is commercially available, and the company has the production capacity in Indiana built to handle large orders of this food-grade film.

A Note About Whey-Based Packaging

A significant amount of hype has been associated with a recent American Chemical Society press release about the latest developments in forming casein-based packaging by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as some other news organizations and bloggers have picked it up and re-posted it. The USDA staff who work in this area admit that there are still significant challenges to whey-based edible/water-soluble packaging that need to be addressed as the film does not meet the barrier properties that traditional packing material has regarding water and oxygen barrier performance. No commercial products have been identified. However, a patent search did identify a number of patent families that cover casein-based films over the last 20 years. No intellectual property was identified with the USDA as an assignee or the researchers who reported on these materials as inventors.

Nerac’s Recommendations

Mia-Moo Unlimited should continue to follow progress in the area of edible films as well as watch the zero-waste grocery trend. Neither is at a break-out point yet. Both cater to the organic-preference consumer, and monitoring these trends for potential feasibility and potential points of entry may fit into Mia-Moo’s long range environmental strategy.

How Can Nerac Help?

Nerac is ideally positioned to help companies identify new and potentially disruptive technologies, research technology trends, track competitor intellectual property activity and provide concise, value-added summaries of emerging, growing or shrinking market sectors.

Call us at 860.872.7000 or click here to learn more!

About the Analyst

Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D.

Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D., advises companies on technology, patents, innovation and disruptive technology. She has 20 plus years of experience as a thought leader and analyst with broad technical knowledge in chemistry, materials and chemical engineering.

Academic Credentials

  • Post Doctoral Fellow, Chemical Engineering Department, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  • Ph.D., Chemistry, University of California Los Angeles
  • M.S., Chemistry/Physics, Georgetown University

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