Daeschel says the team has focused on foods like fresh produce and dairy products because they are so susceptible to contamination. "Fresh fruits and vegetables have been a problem," he says. "We have had contamination of products like spinach, cantaloupe, lettuce, and also fresh berries. If we can coat these foods and eliminate those microorganisms and provide a safer food, as well as extend the shelf life, that would be a great improvement."
"The consumer is looking for more fresh, more natural foods," he says, adding that, "All of the technologies designed to make our food safe may not be appropriate for these new foods."
|Coated strawberries after 20 days.|
image courtesy Oregon State University
The researchers are now working with a specialty food company to turn the edible films into products that could be available within a year or two.
Zhao the engineer doesn't see many obstacles to mass-producing the films.
"There are products, in fact, using edible coatings-- some citrus fruits, some apples… are coated by a wax coating. So moving from lab scale to the commercial application for the coating shouldn't be a major challenge," she says. She says the same goes for edible films, which consumers have gotten used to in products like mouthwash strips.
The researchers point out there is a drawback; the films are made from foods that some people are allergic to. Therefore, the films would need to carry warning labels just like all potential food allergens.
Beyond that, they say they see a bright future. "There's no reason why we can't extend it to a whole variety of foods," Daeschel says. "Right now we're at the point of just documenting the ability of the stuff to work on a couple of foods, and then as this becomes commercialized, I'm sure there'll be a lot of different applications with a lot of different foods."
Zhao, who loves to cook and says she makes great Chinese food, expects that her research will be of personal benefit. "I'm a scientist, (but) also a consumer. So I'm very curious, I pay great attention to what I'm eating, and food safety is a big thing," she says "So with this new technology, I really think I'll help consumers, (and) help myself.
This research was published in the Journal of Food Science, October 26, 2007, and funded by Fordras SA, Lugano, Switzerland.