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Edible Packaging? That's the Wrong Question

Despite the "yuck" factor, this development is an indication of how rapidly packaging, and therefore packaging design, is changing, and the adjustments in thinking it will require. It is also a raised flag to indicate that brand communication, which has been moving away from the purely visual for a long time now, is moving even farther in the direction of including all five senses.

It's all over the Internet: EDIBLE PACKAGING IS HERE TO SAVE THE EARTH!  Here are a few of the many headlines:

  • Etcetera
  • Etcetera
  • And so on . . .

To be honest my first thought when I saw these headlines was, “Yuck, I don’t want to eat packaging, no matter how sustainable or ecological it may be, or how good it may taste.”  

After all, one major function of packaging is to protect food and keep it clean from all the dirt from shipping and all the germs from the many hands that touch it along the way.

This packaging film is made from a milk protein called casien*, with some glycerol added to make it more flexible and citrus pectin – known for its cancer preventing properties – which allows it to better resist humidity and high temperatures.  It is up to 500 times better at keeping oxygen away from food, it is biodegradable, and it is edible. It is virtually tasteless, though flavoring and vitamins can be added. 

First, what I want to be clear about is that these social-media-ready, attention-grabbing "EDIBLE" headlines, may be doing the cause more harm than good, because this initial yuck factor may immediately turn people away from even considering the benefits of this development, and may put off designers considering the design possibilities.  

                                       

                                     *Many wightlifters and athletes will be familiar with casein protein drinks.

Some of the articles do address the question of whether or not customers are ready to make the mental shift to eating food wrappers, and none mention how this might add to the experience of the product, positively or negatively.  But that is missing the point, because all it takes is just a few more minutes of consideration and reading to see:

  • The number of break-throughs that can follow from this development that do not require eating waste
  • The new products and business opportunities this can present
  • The depth this can add to the brand relationship by the statement the shift in materials can make, which may do wonders for brand design and redesign
  • The amount of goodwill and free advertising it can gain
  • The amount of HOPE that it can give to people of planet Earth, in a time when hope is badly needed.

                                      

                          Edible utensils. 

Edible six-pack holders.

Edble cups from a similar material are now on the market.

One of the more sensible headlines was "Milk, Not Plastic, Will Protect Food in the Future".  Less attention grabbing, but more responsible, more to the point, and more in line with how designers need to see this development.

Indevidually wrapped cheeses.

What is important for designers is to be flexible and curious enough to see through the attention-grabbing headlines, research the many positive possibilities other than the packaging being edible and start considering how they may design for and with this new material:

  • It is not made from petroleum, and is much more sustainable
  • It can replace Styrofoam and plastic meal containers for ready-made food and restaurant take-away boxes.
  • Even if you don't eat it, it is still biodegradable, which will decrease waste and doesn't pollute.
  • The protein-based films are powerful oxygen blockers that help prevent food spoilage, much better than cornstarch-based “edible” wrapping that is already on the market.
Packaging that dissolves in boiling water, deducting plastic waste.

  • It is wonderfully suited to single-serve, edible food wrappers, soup mixes, oatmeal and so on, that can simply be tossed into boiling water and all the pre-measured ingredients are released in their proper proportions.
  • It can replace sugar coatings on food, such as cereal flakes or bars, that help keep them crisp and fresh.

Casein coating on cereal flakes instead of sugar, will keep them crispy in milk, and add protein.

  • It can replace the perfluorinated substances that have been used to line drink containers and food boxes - to keep the grease from staining the packaging - or to serve as a lamination step for paper or cardboard food boxes or plastic pouches.
  • It may soon be combined with nanotechnology to become an “active and intelligent” sensor to determine when food is spoiling.
  • The wrap can be designed to time-release preservatives to stave off spoilage, and save waste.

KFC's experiment with an edible espresso cup. 

What is important for companies:  Because packaging is a major part in forming a brand’s (hopefully) lasting relationship with customers, designers are more and more considering elements other than just the visual details of shape, color, logo, and so on.  More and more the conainters’ materials, reusability, secondary purposes, recyclability, higher purposes, and the experiences each of these create for the consumer are becoming key elements in brand communication.

Edible water bottles.

The Point: Food producers and designers should not focus on, nor be turned off by, the "edibility" of new packaging materials.  Instead, focus on their many many other possibilities, most notably its biodegradability, and what having biodegradable packaging can communicate about your brand.  Then begin to dream of how you would design for these new types of materials.

Not a new idea at all. "Edible paper," Michael Keeton in the 1982 film “Night Shift”.  Well now it is here and going mainstream.  But its edibility is not its most important feature.

Food producers and designers should not focus on the edibility of the packaging, but its many many other possibilities, most notably its biodegradability, and what having biodegradable packaging can communicate about your brand.

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Michaela Thomas (2.10.2016 19:09)

After posting this I was thinking back through it and noticed that I had not yet considered any possible downsides of adopting this development widely. The question is, if all the food packaging that is now made of plastic is replaced with this biodegradable casien "plastic", that would definitely cut down on petroleum used and waste created, but it is also possible that it would increase greatly the need for milk, and therefore cows, and therefore pasture land which can cause further deforestation and that land can then not be uses for food production, and the manure from the cows creates green house gasses. So, my point here is that, before rushing into things, we must be wary of where attention-grabbing headlines might lead us, and must carefully consider all sides of things. Sometimes sustainability is counter-intuitive. I learn more about how much I don't yet know, every day. That is both cool and crazy.