Wrapping food in edible plastic is scientists' goal

November 27, 1992|By Kansas City Star

In laboratories across America, scientists work feverishly to create the perfect frozen pizza.

Slathering pizza pies with a new wonder topping would ensure )) the crisp crusts they crave, a topping that would keep the tomato sauce from seeping into the bread dough prior to their arranged marriage at 425 degrees.

That wonder topping: plastic.

Not your basic petroleum-based Saran Wrap, but edible films made from corn, wheat, soybeans and other crops. Food wrap that melts in your mouth, adds protein and makes you feel good about the environment every time you bite into your jumbo supreme pizza.

Since the 1940s, scientists have been developing plastics from starches and proteins with mixed success. Detroit car makers tried using soybean flour as an ingredient in plastic automobile body panels 50 years ago before moving on to fiberglass and other materials.

In the 1950s, corn was used as an ingredient in making phonograph records and buttons. Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey blew a chance to get into soybean plastics in the 1946 movie "It's a Wonderful Life," which is just as well, because cheaper petroleum-based plastics shoved aside agricultural plastics a generation ago.

Although they're still more expensive to produce, agriculture-based plastics have been gaining ground in recent years in response to growing environmental concerns. Corn and wheat starches are now being used to make garbage bags, golf tees and packing for peanuts.

Scientists are even trying to develop agriculture-based disposable plates that would dissolve in seawater so Navy ships can continue dumping trash in the ocean after a pending rule against tossing styrene trash overboard.

Edible plastics are the latest development in the field. Even some of the people making them are reluctant to use the term, because the word "plastic" has so long been linked with the petrochemical industry. Who wants to eat plastic?

But plasticity is a property that the protein films share.

"Whether you want to call them plastics or not, that's what they are," says Ramani Narayan, a scientist at the Michigan Biotechnology Institute in Lansing.

Prototypes of the agriculture-based coatings and film are being developed in university, government and corporate labs from coast to coast. Their developments have received little attention, but experts say agriculture-based food wrap and coatings could be on the market in a couple of years, revolutionizing the %J packaged food market.

Not only would the material serve as an organic oxygen and moisture barrier on foods such as pizza, it could be used as the outer packaging for other types of products.

Heat a microwave burger and gape in wonder as the protective cooking bag dissolves into the bun. Toss a bag of frozen vegetables into boiling water and behold the packaging become part of the meal.

No waste, and there's extra protein, its promoters say.

And, it's not just packaged food that would be affected. Fruits, vegetables and nuts could be dipped in agriculture-based protective coatings, similar to wax, to keep them fresh by keeping oxygen out and moisture in.

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