OSU Presents: Edible Food Wrap

A group of researchers at Oregon State University have created an ingenious new way to protect and preserve expireable foods like meat, cheese, and cut fruit and vegetables. The team of scientists, which includes OSU Professor of Food Science Yanyun Zhao, who has also worked as a value-added food products specialist with the OSU extension service, developed a delicate film that works like plastic wrap to keep moist foods fresh. However, this wrap has many benefits that typical plastic wrap does not, such as being edible.

Zhao has studied ways of enriching food and keeping food fresh for several years. Her first big break in food protection innovation occurred in 2004 at OSU’s Department of Food Science and Technology, when Zhao and her colleagues discovered that mixing a fiber derived from crustacean shells with a protein from egg whites could create an edible wrap that not only protects food, but increases its nutritional value. In 2009, Zhao led a team of scientists in creating an edible coating to protect fish fillets, and in 2013, she worked with other scientists to find nutrition-rich and sustainable ways to use leftover grapes that are normally discarded after making wine.

Zhao’s most recent development in food sciences was inspired by her 2004 discovery surrounding the benefits of using chitosan, a fiber extracted from crab shells, in materials used to cover food. The material that she and her colleagues— Zilong Deng and Jooyeoun Jung— created this year is made out of a combination of chitosan and a cellulose nanofiber extracted from wood pulp.

Chitosan has antimicrobial and antioxidant properties that keep food from going bad; more specifically, it keeps the food from succumbing to bacteria like E. Coli, or oxidizing when exposed to air. The second ingredient in the special wrap is a cellulose nanofiber that provides the benefit of protecting foods that have wet surfaces and a high water content, like meat and fruit, without dissolving.

In addition to increasing the shelf life of these foods, the newest wrap has the benefit of being completely safe to eat. According to OSU’s extension service regarding Zhao’s earlier experiments with chitosan protein, these edible and antimicrobial coverings are nutritious and can be enriched with vitamins.

The results from this latest study were published online in the LWT Journal of Food Science and Technology. If approved by the FDA for human consumption, the film could replace materials like plastic wrap or waxed paper that are currently used in meat packaging, which are unfortunately not biodegradable.

By Kiki Genoa