Food protein layer replaces petrochemical polymer in packaging

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 10th January 2012

EU researchers believe that whey protein’s future potential as a packaging material could reduce or replace the use of petrochemicals in food packaging.

Researchers working on the EU’s “Wheylayer” project have developed a whey protein layer to replace a petrochemical-based polymer layer in packaging. The natural ingredients in the whey extend the shelf life of food products, and the whey protein layer is biodegradable.

Currently, transparent multilayer films, in which each layer offers specific benefits, are frequently used in packaging to protect food from contamination. To minimise the amount of oxygen that penetrates the packaging, companies typically use expensive, petrochemical-based polymers such as ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) co-polymers as barrier materials.

The EU researchers claim to have developed a whey protein formulation that can be used as the raw material for a film barrier layer, as well as an economically viable process to produce the multifunctional films on an industrial scale. The researchers have already applied for a patent on their new technology.

One of the researchers, Markus Schmid from the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV in Freising, in Germany said, “Our work to manufacture a multilayer film of this kind is a world first.

“Companies that choose to make the switch to whey proteins in the future will only need to make minor modifications to their plants. This application for whey protein would conserve resources and reduce the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” he added.

Concerns of consumer groups, certifiers and regulators

There are significant implications for the use of whey-based layers in packaging. These would include concerns for consumers with allergic responses to dairy products. In addition, kosher consumers would be concerned with a milk-based package for any food product that might preclude consumption of the food with meat-based meals. Likewise, vegan consumers would be concerned that a product could be tainted by milk because of the packaging.

Certifiers for these consumer groups will be likely to examine the technology very closely and may encourage consumers to seek alternatives. Government regulators will need to look at the issue of warnings on packaging that the products may contain dairy, or at least dairy traces in the same manner as existing declarations of dairy that are required to be made even if there is a mere residual taint from the prior production run 0f another product.

At the moment in many countries, failure to declare  the presence of a whey protein isolate ingredient is grounds for a product recall for a food, because of non-compliance with the mandatory obligation to declare the existence of a dairy ingredient in a food product.