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NOVA ScienceNOW

Packaging You Can Eat

  • By Ari Daniel
  • Posted 10.25.12
  • NOVA scienceNOW

Have you ever eaten a cocktail? Held a mouthful of juice in your hand? A team of chefs, chemists, and designers has come up with a way for you to do just that. They've created a biodegradable shell that can enclose ice cream, mousses, cheeses, and liquids.

Listen to the story.

A team of chefs, chemists, and designers introduce foods and beverages wrapped in edible shells.

Balls of vanilla, raspberry, and green peas-mint yogurt Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesty Daniel Mettoudi

Let's start with something familiar—an orange.

David Edwards, an inventor and engineer at Harvard University, slices one open. "Now look at that," he says, pointing to the pulp. "Obviously the orange is full of water and moisture…and then you've got the orange peel."

The peel is a kind of durable, biodegradable packaging. Few people eat an orange peel, but it is edible. And, of course, we do eat the peels of other fruits, like peaches and apples. The fact that these fruits come in their own built-in packaging is convenient. It means they do not have to be sold in boxes or bags.

This idea is the inspiration behind a company that Edwards has founded. He wants to change the way we package and eat food.

Making His Own Peel

This is where things start to get less familiar.

Edwards fetches a plate of what look like red rubber balls. He picks one up between his thumb and forefinger.

David Edwards holds up a ball of yogurt enclosed in an edible skin. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Ari Daniel / WGBH Educational Foundation

"I'm going to bite into it just to show you what's going on here," he says.

Edwards bites it in two and holds up the half still in his fingers. Greek yogurt sits inside. He squeezes the yogurt out.

"That skin keeps the moisture inside, and it keeps germs and other things outside."

The innovative part is what is on the outside. It is a protective, biodegradable skin – like an orange peel. And it's edible.

"That skin keeps moisture inside, and it keeps germs and other things outside," Edwards explains.

He won't reveal the exact recipe, but he says in this case the raw ingredients come from raspberries and algae.

And it is not just yogurt that Edwards is wrapping in this kind of edible peel. His vision is that one day you will go to the supermarket and, instead of buying cartons of juice and cans of soup, you will fill your cart up with balls of food and drink.

Edwards suggests we imagine this scenario. "I get home, and I hand [the food] to my son, and he hands it to his friend," Edwards says. "And then the friend says, 'But did you wash your hands?' At that point, I clean it as I do fruit and vegetables today. I can run water over it, and it doesn't dissolve, actually. And it can be cleaned, and then I can eat it."

A Curious Display of Food

It may sound like something from Star Trek, but Edwards is already trying these products out on the public. His company recently organized a tasting at its test kitchen in Paris.

Balls of cheese (foreground) and yogurt (background) await the public taste test. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Ari Daniel / WGBH Educational Foundation

Just before the event, the company's research and development manager, Heloise Vilaseca, was eager to hear what the taste testers would say. "Would they like it?" she wondered aloud. "Would they understand the product? Would they want to share it with friends?"

On this day, four volunteers had arrived to try the new foods. Maëva Tordo was one of them. She works in business innovation, and her eyes were wide with anticipation.

"I'm really, really curious about it because I always dreamed about being able to eat the cap of my yogurt," she said. "So I can't wait."

Before long, the group was brought into a room where the food had been laid out. White spheres of frosty ice cream and brown orbs of mousse rested in shallow bowls. Yellow and green cheese marbles huddled on little plates. The gelatinous balls of yogurt were on display, as well.

Chris Tallec looks on as Nettra Pan tries an orb of ice cream. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Ari Daniel / WGBH Educational Foundation

The taste testers plucked them up with their fingers and popped them into their mouths like grapes. They seemed to be loving it, though someone did mention that the ice cream could be improved by making it smaller.

Perhaps the strangest things on the table were the beverages—colorful globes of liquid. Some contained orange juice. Others held a cocktail made with blue Curaçao, wrapped in a transparent spherical skin flecked with orange rind and placed in martini glasses.

Is the general public really ready to buy edible balls of soda or coffee at the grocery store?

Chris Tallec, a designer, poked a straw through the skin of his turquoise cocktail and slurped the liquid inside. Then he held up the skin and ate it.

"It's really tasty because it has the flavor of the orange around [it]," he said. Tallec added that he was enjoying this new way of eating. "It's playful. Also, it's [seductive]—you know, you're curious about it."

Evan Samek tries one of the cocktails containing blue Curaçao. It is wrapped in its own edible packaging. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Ari Daniel / WGBH Educational Foundation

Before the tasting ended, Maëva Tordo's curiosity got the better of her. She reached for one more ball of yogurt, but the contents had warmed up to room temperature. So when she bit it in half to admire how it was created, the yogurt squirted out and splattered her hair.

"That's what happens when you play too much with food," she said, laughing.

The Future of Edible Packaging

The taste testers seemed to be sold on the concept, but is the general public really ready to buy edible balls of soda or coffee at the grocery store and from vending machines? Is it realistic to think we can bundle much of our food into this kind of packaging?

The product's inventor, David Edwards, thinks so. "Interest from leading multi-national food and beverage companies has been great," he says.

Still, there is a lot to do before he licenses this technology to major food brands. He has patent applications in the pipeline, and he has to make sure the technology can scale easily from a small test kitchen to mass production.

As Edwards continues to refine this new kind of food, he is relying on the public to tell him what works and what doesn't. In fact, he calls his company WikiCell Designs (as in Wikipedia) because, as he sees it, it is a collaborative effort.

The next step in that collaboration will come soon when the world's first "Wiki Bar" opens, in Paris. Consumers will be able to purchase these balls of yogurt, mousse, and juice, and offer feedback. Edwards says if all goes well, he plans to roll out his products in the United States next year.

Check out more global science stories from PRI's "The World."

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