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July 7, 2022

Protective Food Packaging

As the cost of buying groceries rises, food spoilage sends up to 40% of America’s food into landfills, and foodborne illness causes 420,000 deaths per year worldwide, could an innovative medical technology born on the battlefield be the solution? Researchers adapted that technology to develop a food packaging system that is biodegradable, protects against microbial contamination, and extends shelf life. Learn more on NSF’s “The Discovery Files.”

Credit: National Science Foundation

This is The Discovery Files, from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Between 30 and 40% of America’s food supply finds its way into landfills, mostly due to spoilage.

The World Health Organization estimates that foodborne illness from bacterial contamination causes about 420,000 deaths per year worldwide.

These are stunning numbers, especially as food costs continue to rise.

What if there was a way to extend the shelf-life of food, while eliminating the risk of contamination?

Supported in part by NSF, researchers at Harvard University have found a path forward to do both. They developed a packaging system that is biodegradable and protects against microbial contamination.

Having developed an innovative technology for the battlefield -- antimicrobial fibers used to dress soldiers’ wounds protected against bacteria and fungi, and controlled moisture -- the researchers adapted their design to create food packaging.

It is made with a polymer that is an edible, tasteless and naturally occurring carbohydrate, dissolving it in water and mixing in naturally occurring antimicrobial agents like thyme oil, nisin and citric acid.

When compared to aluminum foil, they found a dramatic reduction in microorganisms such as E. coli. This technology could one day reduce the environmental footprint of food waste, with more sustainable food packaging that also extends shelf-life.

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