New in the News- Nice Package!

I have not been blogging much due to being in a bit of a funk. We’re all concerned about where our country is going. This is not a political blog, but I assure you I am concerned.  I assure you that if you are not concerned then you are not paying attention.  Since one of my concerns is the future of science in this country I am aiming to write a few short pieces about current events in food, nutrition and agriculture science. This week- food packaging.

Watching our aquarium is helping me stay calm. Fish are relaxing.

Watching our aquarium is helping me stay calm. Fish are relaxing.

I promise this is actually an interesting topic. Food safety requires that foods be kept protected from contamination, so we need food packaging.  However, much of our food packaging is made from plastics like polyethylene film and polystyrene. Plastic is not so friendly for the environment; you probably know that already. One alternative polymer for food films that is being researched extensively is chitosan. Chitosan is processed from chitin, the protein-glucose polymer that makes up the shells of shellfish and insects and the cell walls of some fungi.

The idea of making food packing out of chitosan is not really new. A 1999 article from Trends in Food and Science Technology by Shahidi et al summarizes the many potential uses of chitosan as a food packaging and additive. The article is a bit technical, but a glance at the tables will give you a good summary.

1999-shahidi-et-al

This 2015 article from the The EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation’s periodical Horizon is quite readable.

NBC News published this piece in 2015.

The main points of the all this research-

  • Chitosan production uses up something that would otherwise become waste (shellfish shells) and can replace food packaging films made from petroleum.
  • Chitosan has inherent antimicrobial properties that delay food spoilage and therefore could reduce food waste. It is edible, so it can even be sprayed in liquid form onto fresh vegetables to slow bacterial spoilage. I found a number of articles that noted increased antimicrobial properties when other components (grapefruit seed extract, propolis, etc.) were added to the film.
  • Work is still needed to make chitosan production efficient enough for it to compete with plastic food packaging products.
  • I could not find a commercially available chitosan food packaging product. I did find several companies selling crickets for snacking on, though. That might be another blog post some day; or not.

An issue that I could not find adequately addressed was allergen potential. Shellfish are one of the top eight most common food allergens. I was able to find some articles about chitosan films used as wound dressings. These articles generally noted that allergen potential is low. Even if the risk is zero the chitosan packaging industry may face a public relations issue. People may be unwilling to risk the exposure to a serious allergen. I empathize with that.

I was surprised by how much work is being done on the use of chitosan as a food packaging. I agree that it is a product worth developing.  If you know anything important that I missed, please let me know in the comments. Because science is a dialogue. And science is important. And this is not a political blog.

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