"I just want to say one word to you. Just one word: plastics."
Back in 1967, when Mike Nichols made the film The Graduate, plastics were the way of the future. Today, although much of our food is in fact wrapped in plastic films, we now know better. Plastics are most decidedly not the way of the future for several reasons: They create a massive amount of waste, they're not actually that great at preventing spoilage, and they may very well be lousy for your health.
Luckily, a team at the US Department of Agriculture just announced at the National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society that they are developing an environmentally friendly and good-for-you film that is also up to 500 times better at keeping oxygen away from food. This wonder film is made out of the milk protein known as casein.
Henceforth, we all may be eating the wrapping that our food comes in, because the new casein-based film is biodegradable, sustainable, and edible—and full of protein to boot. Casein is the name for the family of proteins found in cow's milk.
Dr. Laetitia Bonnaillie, a co-leader of the study, said, "The coatings applications for this product are endless. We are currently testing applications such as single-serve, edible food wrappers. For instance, individually wrapped cheese sticks use a large proportion of plastic — we would like to fix that."
Bonnaillie says the new type of packaging should be on shelves within three years. Her group is creating a prototype now, and a small company in Texas—as well as several other companies—are interesting in marketing the product.
Remarkably, this environmentally benevolent wrap works better than plastic: "The protein-based films are powerful oxygen blockers that help prevent food spoilage," Dr. Peggy Tomasula, who also led the research, explained.
The casein-based packaging is said to look a lot like plastic wrap, but is less stretchy. Although it is edible, it is not made of starch, as are other types of edible packaging now on the market. Instead, the casein-based wrap is almost all protein. Nutritious additives like vitamins or probiotics can be included to it, too—as can flavorings.
The researchers are also exploring the development of a casein-based spray for use on cereals. To keep their crunch, cereals are often coated in sugar. Instead of that, the researchers say, a casein-based spray could be used to prevent the blight that is soggy cereal.
As we're pretty damn certain your future self could attest, there's nothing quite like devouring some cheese-wrapped cheese while a doe-eyed cow stares on in unabashed pride.