Imagine having ingredients pre-measured and being able to toss them into a recipe, package and all. Or working with smaller amounts of fresh products like balls of cheese or dollops of yogurt, package and all. This is one vision of how things may be if big companies get on board with the idea of edible and dissolving packaging for food products.
Monosol is one of several companies entering the dissolvable/edible package market. Other names include Dr. Oetker and popular yet lesser-known retail brand WikiCells. These manufacturers and retailers have sensed an opportunity to reduce packaging and target a market that is for the most part forgotten: baking ingredients in custom sizes for industrial and commercial kitchen use.
A quick primer: think about the individual laundry and dish detergents that come in small squares and dissolve as they clean. Now imagine them with food or ingredients inside, and you can eat the bag they are contained in as well.
A division of Monosol known as Vivos is working on food-grade packaging. Not packaging that is safe to use for food, but packaging that could be used as food. Due to various confidentiality agreements, Sumeet Kumar, senior manager of strategic marketing for MonoSol, is unable to say which companies may be working with Vivos to produce food items in packaging that disappears into the food. He does confirm that several large brands have shown interest, and offered a few examples of how the Vivos edible packaging works.
“It could be used for baking where there are a number of ingredients, and they must be measured out in precise amounts,” Kumar says, “This would achieve a batch-to-batch consistency with the finished product.”
The edible film is designed so that it does not change the viscosity, odour or taste of the food that has been packaged. Ingredients that must be kept away from light can be tinted; however, Kumar says that often customers like the idea of seeing exactly what is in the package. He notes that it is practically tamper-proof because it isn’t meant to be opened and removed before using the contents. The film does not reseal; once open it is obvious that the ingredients are compromised.
Wondering what this may be made of? Don’t worry, it’s not science – exactly.
“This is not a new molecule or something like that. It is existing ingredients used in new ways. We can customize the packaging for kosher-friendly, gluten-free, non-GMO with a certificate, et cetera. It can be used on a small scale or a very large one,” Kumar says.
Another benefit Kumar sees to digestible packaging is the reduced amount of food waste and spilling – single-serve items could be encased in the film and then put into one box rather than packaged separately with layers of plastic and foil, as is done now.
Examples of products that make natural edible packaging contents are food colourings, enzymes, spices, flavours, sweeteners, single-serve packets (oatmeal, hot chocolate, soup), industrial sized batches of pre-mixed ingredients, and some condiments.
A Harvard professor has also taken up the challenge of reducing waste and encouraging simplicity in food preparation and consumption. Professor David Edwards and designer François Azambourg created a product known as WikiCells. Likened to a grape’s skin keeping the grape encased, WikiCells offers a variety of cooking and baking options including a wine “skin” with edible packaging. Other examples include ice cream and dairy products. Whatever is in the secret recipe for WikiCells, it is food-grade quality and palatable too. The outer packaging is set to enhance whatever is inside using complementary flavours. Edwards went a step further, conceiving the idea of making the outer packaging dissolving or edible as well.
Edwards’s initial outer shells included ingredients like caramel, bagasse (the fibre left behind after sugar is extracted from sugar cane), tapioca or rock candy. This would make the external shells edible, but there would still need to be a further package of some sort. Imagine a bag of chocolate chips that was in an edible outer box, sitting in a grocery store aisle. Edwards correctly ascertained that people were not interested in eating the external box. On the other hand, a compostable and natural outer box could be made of non-food grade tapioca or bagasse. Food trays are now being made by a number of companies using these (non-edible) ingredients.
According to Harvard University, WikiCell packaging can be made by anyone who owns a WikiCell machine. Bakeries that want consistent cakes might package large batches of a mix into smaller ones for storage and near-future baking. These packages could contain dry or wet ingredients. For instance, in a cake recipe one bag could hold the moist and another the dry for combination by a baker in the early-morning hours each day without the need for measuring, sifting and pouring and the cleanup of multiple kitchen implements.
View the embedded image gallery online at:
One of the company’s newer products, WikiPearl, packages two-bite concoctions, including cheese, chocolate mousse, ice cream, and specially prepared fruits and vegetables as snacks, inside the edible outer skin.
The most immediate impact that edible packaging may have on a bakery near you comes from German baking company Dr. Oetker. Like a thin wafer, the cupcake cases come in pink or blue, and can be baked on a flat tray. After they are cooked, the cupcake and its outer case can be eaten. Currently available in the U.K., each package contains three blue and three pink cupcake cases.
Some critics of edible packaging focus on the packaging aspect, claiming that in order to have digestible packaging a whole new layer of packaging is being created. For instance, with edible package films, an outer container must be used to keep the items dry and clean – hot chocolate powder in an edible package could not sit on the shelf and then be used in a mug of cocoa due to food-safety concerns.
On the positive side of non-toxic dissolvable packaging is the science: some types of edible packaging actually assist in keeping food items fresh longer than the usual plastic and preservative methods.
But is there a demand? Vivos film is still in development. Though WikiCells have been around for approximately three years, thus far a limited number of Whole Foods stores located in Massachusetts are the only places WikiCell packaging can be found. WikiPearls are much more of a speciality item, available at Whole Foods but also a single Cambridge, Mass., cafe called the WikiBar. The Dr. Oeteker line is exclusive to the U.K. and consists of one item.
The questions remains: will the food industry come to embrace the new, more environmentally friendly packaging solutions that are available?
While edible packaging is now available for retail purchase in select areas, only a future expansion will tell this community whether or not the edible packaging market is here to stay or a gone-in-two-bites novelty of the week.