Food packaging could be a very different world in the near future. From "electronic tongues" that can "taste" products to bacteria-battling nanoparticles that are 50,000 times thinner than human hair, researchers are hard at work on some mind-blowing innovations.
The following six technologies won't just protect food from contamination or make eating easier; they stand to change the way food and beverages providers operate. So what does the future have in store? Let's have a look:
1. EDIBLE PACKAGING
In the future, you will eat your dinner and, instead of tossing the packaging in the trash or recycling bin, you will eat that, too. At least, that's what some industry experts are saying. Just within the last year, a research team at Harvard University, led by Professor David Edwards, generated multiple edible (and tasty) food containers called WikiCells. Taking inspiration from an apple, which protects its matter with edible skin, the team's inventions thus far include pumpkin soup in spinach membrane, lemon juice in a lemon membrane and melted chocolate in a cherry membrane. While Bontan Ame, an edible rice paper-wrapped candy, has been available in Japan for over a century, Edwards said he still had some stability issues to iron out, he predicted the breakthrough innovation could be available on the market within the year "in a limited way" but that, long-term, this is "the future of packaging."
2. MICRO PACKAGING
Using nanotechnology, a research team at Texas A&M University has developed what may possibly be the next food packaging miracle: micro-film. The material, which is thousands of times thinner than human hair, consists solely of water, a soluble polymer and 70% clay particles. While Jaime Grunlan, the associate professor who led the endeavor, asserts that the film is "basically dirt", the packaging is significantly more eco-friendly than plastic, has the preservation qualities of glass and could hold the fizz in a soda better than anything currently out on the market.
Meanwhile, Bayer, the chemical and pharmaceutical company, has developed a plastic film called Durethan using clay nanoparticles that prevents oxygen, moisture and carbon dioxide from decomposing food products. Similarly, Nanocor, a nanoclay technology developer, has created nanocrystal-embedded plastic that prevents the escape of oxygen from beer bottles, significantly extending their shelf life up to 18 months. While companies such as Pepsico and McDonald's are still wary of any negative associations elicited by the word "nanotechnology", the food and beverage industry is looking on with rapt interest, hoping that researchers can get a handle on micro packaging and how to use it safely and effectively.
3. SMART PACKAGING
What if food packaging could tell consumers whether and when it's good or bad to eat? A team of researchers at the University of Connecticut, Rutgers University and Kraft Foods are looking into something called the "electronic tongue", an innovative technology that can effectively "taste" food through sensors embedded in the packaging. If the food is contaminated or spoiled, the packaging will change color, alerting the consumer whether it can still be cooked or needs to be thrown out. Similarly, scientists in Holland are creating smart packaging with a "release on command" insta-preservative that salvage food right before it goes bad. Even the U.S. military is looking into smart food packaging: for national security reasons, the military hopes that researchers successfully develop "super sensors" that detect whether or not food is contaminated.
4. ANTI-MICROBIAL PACKAGING
Anti-microbial packaging does not just shield food from bacteria, it actively acts against it. An Israeli graduate student named Ronen Gottesman has produced "killer paper", an anti-bacterial silver nanoparticle-coated paper that can fight to keep germs out of food. Gottesman said, "The smaller the size of the particles, the more effective they are against bacteria." Similarly, Kodak (yes, the camera company) is generating anti-microbial packaging that can absorb oxygen and keep food fresh.
5. WATER SOLUBLE PACKAGING
MonoSol, a U.S. water soluble product manufacturing company, has created Vivos edible delivery systems, which are, essentially, food pouches that dissolve in water. The plastic film packaging, which dissolves faster under hot water, supposedly cannot be tasted when eaten. MonoSol claims its product is convenient for on-the-go consumers and could be used to package such liquid-friendly fare as drink powders, cereals, soups and sauces. While MonoSol contends they are fielding interest from multinationals, the technology would need to be customized to each individual product and currently still requires secondary packaging to protect against contamination. Truly groundbreaking or commercially unfeasible? Only time will tell.
6. SELF-COOLING, SELF-HEATING PACKAGING
While consumers and industry executives have long fantasized about self-cooling and self-heating food and beverage packaging, the reality is that there is no record of commercial success... yet. Two recent innovations aim to change that. While Joseph Company International launched the Chill Can last year without too much global fanfare, the 19-years-in-the-making, EPA Stratospheric Award-winning "Microcool" technology adsorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which is released when the activitation button is pressed, causing the liquid inside the can to drop to 30 degrees Fahrenheit within a matter of minutes. Similarly, HeatGenie and Crown Holdings have developed a self-heating component called HeatGenie which can heat a product to 145 degrees Fahrenheit in two minutes and is to be embedded at the bottom of a product's packaging. While the success of these particular technologies is up in the air, the convenience and marketing potential for temperature-changing packaging technology is clear.
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