According to Statistica, Americans use a lot of plastic wrap to store their food. In fact, close to 3 million U.S. households use over 10 boxes of plastic wrap every six months. And while that number is high, it doesn’t take into account the food we buy that already comes wrapped in plastic – bread, cheese, chips, cereal, meat – the list goes on. But researchers at the National University of Singapore seem to have discovered a natural composite material that is not only biodegradable and environmentally sustainable but could also double the shelf life of our products wrapped in food.

The new food wrap, developed by an associate professor at the university and a PhD student is made from the crushed shells of crustaceans and fortified with grapefruit seed extract. The development team started by examining current food storage trends and found that while synthetic plastics did a fine job keeping food from spoiling, they did so in a purely physical way. The plastic provided a barrier between the food and oxygen in the environment, thus preventing the growth of bacteria or mold. And the degradation of the plastic over time means that eventually, oxygen gets in and our food goes bad.

So researchers created a natural packaging made primarily from the shells of shrimp – specifically synthesising the exoskeleton of the crustacean and using the polymer formed called chitosan. Chitosan is a biodegradable and non-toxic substance but it also forms a film substance, making it ideal for food coverage applications. The polymer also has strong antimicrobial and antifungal properties, giving it the ability to protect food not only by acting as a physical barrier but as a chemical one as well. To strengthen the film, they added extract from grapefruit seed which also possess antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.

But it turns out crushed crustacean shells aren’t the only natural material that makes for ideal food packaging. Chemical engineers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently unveiled findings that casein, a protein found in milk, is a sturdy substance whose properties make it ideal for replacing the packaging around boxed and prepackaged foods. That’s right – your favorite cereal might one day be found inside a bag made out of milk. Pretty genius, right?

Food packaging made from casein
Food packaging made from casein

These discoveries may take years to actually disrupt food production and packaging on a grand scale, but the movement to find more sustainable ways to keep foods safe and fresh continues to grow. With investment in food tech growing every year, it’s not hard to imagine innovations like these on the shelves at your local grocery store in the not-too-distant future.