by Jeanne Yacoubou, MS
VRG Research Director
Edible food coatings that resemble plastic food wrap, such as carnauba wax on apples or shellac in confectioner’s glaze, are not new to the food industry. These films are commonly used to improve food quality and food safety or to minimize packaging cost. Today, edible films are very common in the breath mint and cough and cold over-the-counter medicine industries, bringing in millions per year. They are also common in the meat and fish industries.
What is new in edible films are various substances being tested for their ability not only to protect and preserve foods but also to enhance flavor and physical appeal. In several test labs around the country, various films are being applied to many different kinds of foods ranging from chocolate to nuts to doughnuts, French fries, battered and breaded food products, vegetables including eggplant and mushrooms, and a host of packaged foods including breakfast cereals and freeze-dried products. Readers may find out more information at www.ediblefilms.org.
Of interest to vegans and those with certain religious restrictions on what they may consume are the sources of the new classes of edible food coatings. While many of the films being tested are derived from plant materials including corn zein or sodium alginate from seaweed, others are derived from dairy (whey) or crustacean (crab, shrimp) shells. Some films being tested contain several different components of plant and animal origins.
Dr. Tara McHugh, a scientist working in the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), has developed a number of edible films derived from common fruits and vegetables including apples and carrots. They are usually thinner than paper, flexible, and have good oxygen barrier properties. She is currently investigating anti-microbial films made with oregano oil and purees from broccoli, tomatoes, mangoes, or other produce.
While in graduate school at the University of California at Davis, she worked under Dr. John Krochta who is a leading researcher in perfecting whey-based films for a wide variety of foods. McHugh told The VRG, "No company that I know of is commercially producing foods in whey-based films."
A conversation with an Investigator (in food complaints) at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in April 2010 revealed a reason why whey-based films on some foods, especially produce, is unlikely. "Profit margins are very small in agriculture," she said. "Produce companies are reluctant to try anything new, especially when the economy is so poor, and hesitate to make new investments. It’s only when the investment will be sure to pad their profits, that they’ll try it." The investigator also noted that companies may hesitate to try whey-based films because of the additional regulations applicable to such a food product, including an allergy declaration required on its food’s package according to the Food Allergen and Labeling Consumer Protection Law of 2004. Such a declaration may hinder an otherwise acceptable product from being purchased by individuals with food allergies or those with religious proscriptions against certain foods/food combinations.
McHugh told us that California-based Origami Foods is an industry leader in developing vegetable- and fruit-based edible films. She has worked with Origami Foods’ president, Matthew de Bord, who is using and developing many of the films created by and/or with McHugh’s research team. de Bord uses them to create unique varieties of sushi…without raw fish or seaweed.
Origami Foods is looking for companies willing to invest in manufacturing a host of creations using the vegetable and fruit wraps. de Bord told The VRG that he’s created many of the recipes as well as the wraps himself, such as a strawberry wrap in the shape of a cone to encase chocolate cheesecake. An innovation on the wrap concept is forming them into bite-sized pouches for granola, dried fruit and chocolate chip mixes. "The possibilities for my fruit and vegetable wraps are endless," he told us. For more information, contact de Bord at www.origamifoods.com.