A research team from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the Harvard School of Public Health in the United States has developed a "smart" food packaging material. The new material is biodegradable, sustainably produced, and kills harmful microorganisms; it can also extend the shelf life of fresh fruit by two to three days.
This new waterproof food packaging is made from a type of zein (Zein), cellulose, acetic acid and other naturally derived biopolymers by electrospinning technology; and infused with natural antibacterial compounds, including thyme essential oil and citric acid. Its main ingredient, Zein, is produced from corn gluten meal, which is a by-product of processing corn starch, oil extraction, and ethanol production.
In experiments, the new packaging material released antimicrobial compounds that killed common bacteria that contaminate food, such as E. coli and Listeria, as well as fungi.
The packaging is designed to release the necessary trace amounts of antimicrobial compounds only when exposed to additional humidity or the presence of bacteria, ensuring that the packaging material can be used multiple times and lasts for months. It can be used in a variety of products, including ready-to-eat meals, raw meats, fruits and vegetables, and more. In the experiment, strawberries packed with this new material can be kept fresh for 7 days before they become moldy, while strawberries in ordinary fruit plastic boxes can only be kept fresh for 4 days.
The findings, published in the academic journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, are the result of a collaboration of sustainable nanotechnology scientists from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and the Harvard School of Public Health. They are committed to developing non-toxic and environmentally safe nanomaterials for cutting-edge applications in agriculture and food, and by doing so, promote sustainable food technology solutions to some of the industry's most pressing challenges.
Judging from the experimental data, this new packaging material may become a better choice for food industry packaging because of its superior antibacterial properties against foodborne pathogens. According to the research team, the packaging can be applied to a variety of food products on the market today, such as fish, meat, vegetables and fruits; moreover, only when bacteria or high humidity conditions, will the antibacterial be released "smartly" compounds, thereby minimizing the risk of disease.
As we all know, the largest use of synthetic plastics derived from petroleum is packaging materials, and it is still growing, with packaging plastics for food making up the majority of plastic waste that pollutes the environment. In the case of Singapore, the "garden city country", packaging is a major source of its waste. According to Singapore's National Environment Agency, of the 1.76 million tonnes of waste disposed of in the country in 2018, a third was packaging waste and more than half was plastic (55%).
Once scaled up, this smart food packaging material holds promise as a plastic replacement and has the potential to reduce the use of non-biodegradable plastics globally and promote sustainable agri-food systems.
Food safety and food waste are not only a constant pain point for the agri-food industry, they have also become major societal challenges of our time, with enormous implications for public health and the economy. One of the most effective ways to improve food safety and reduce food spoilage and waste is to develop efficient, biodegradable, and non-toxic food packaging materials. In this study, the researchers used naturally derived compounds, including biopolymers, non-toxic solvents, and natural antibacterial components, and developed a scalable system to synthesize smart antibacterial materials. Compared to traditional plastic packaging, new materials can not only improve food safety and quality, but also eliminate environmental and health hazards.
As more food producers seek to increase food production capacity, which means packaging volumes will increase in tandem, switching to new materials like this will help agri-food businesses have a double positive impact, which is good for the industry. We look forward to the commercialization of such new materials one day sooner. The research team at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Harvard University hopes to scale up their technology with an industrial partner, with the goal of commercializing it within the next few years. Currently, the team is also working on developing other biopolymer-based smart food packaging materials.