Europeans develop innovative, sustainable food packaging product

We’re constantly on the go, and products that make our lives easier are always welcome. But keeping products safe is important. This is especially true for the food industry. When fats, oils and other food components are oxidised, the foods we eat lose nutrients and colours. Steering clear of oxidation is crucial for food packaging. An EU-funded team of researchers has developed a biomaterial from whey protein as well as a commercially viable method of producing multifunctional films on an industrial scale.

This is steps ahead of the conventional films based on petrochemicals. The results are an outcome of the WHEYLAYER (‘Whey protein-coated plastic films to replace expensive polymers and increase recyclability’) project, which received more than EUR 2.5 million under the ‘Research for the Benefit of SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises)’, Seventh Framework Programme Capacities Work Programme of the EU.

The fruits of their labour are part of a strong European effort to develop a sustainable packing material, whose production is both cost-effective and good for the environment. Industry will benefit immensely from this latest innovation, because it will help keep their food products safe from oxygen, moisture, and chemical and biological contamination. The upshot of this development is that foods will remain fresh for as long as possible.

Current methods focus on the use of expensive, petrochemical-based polymers like ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) copolymers as barrier materials. The German Society for Packaging Market Research believes that over 640 square kilometres of composite materials using EVOH as an oxygen barrier layer will be manufactured and used in Germany in 2014.

For the WHEYLAYER project, the natural ingredients in the whey extend the shelf life of food products. An added bonus is that the whey protein layer is biodegradable.

Commenting on the results of their study, WHEYLAYER partner Markus Schmid of the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV in Germany said: ‘We’ve managed to develop a whey protein formulation that can be used as the raw material for a film barrier layer. And we have also developed an economically viable process which can be used to produce the multifunctional films on an industrial scale.’

To develop the whey layer, the German team first purified sweet whey and sour whey, and they produced high-purity whey protein isolates. Various modification methods were tested to obtain suitable proteins with superior film-forming properties. The proteins withstood the mechanical loads involved because the team mixed them with different concentrations of various softeners and other additives, which were biobased.

‘All these additives are approved substances,’ Mr Schmid explained. ‘Our work at the IVV to manufacture a multilayer film of this kind using a roll-to-roll method is a world’s first.’

The good news for enterprises that would like to make the switch to whey proteins is that this will only require minor modifications to their plants. The researchers said they have applied for a patent on this innovative technology.

Led by the Spain-based Patronal de la Petita i Mitjana Empresa de Catalunya (PIMEC), the WHEYLAYER consortium consists of experts from Germany, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Hungary and Slovenia.

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