Consumer demand for foods convenient and fast has led to a surge in packaging waste across the globe. The use and disposal of plastic in particular has spiked, and despite increased corporate and municipal recycling programs, far too much plastic still ends up in landfills. This grab-and-go mentality for both junk and healthful foods alike will hardly be sustainable in the long run as more food companies and their brands churn out more products and packaging gimmicks in the name of “innovation.” Not one company so far, though, has found an innovative way to deal with the accumulation of Tetra-Paks, cartons and myriad types of plastic. Could edible packaging help solve this problem?
WikiFoods, Inc., a start-up based in Paris and Cambridge, MA, believes it has a solution. David Edwards, a Harvard Professor who co-founded the company in 2010, recently spoke with me from his office in France. What currently sells at Wikibar, a small storefront in Paris, will roll out in selected Whole Foods Markets by the end of this year — and in the long run, could transform food packaging the way we know it.
“WikiPearls” are small balls of ice cream and frozen yogurt surrounded by a shell that not only promises to outperform plastic as a protectant — it is also edible. This cold and funky treat came about in 2009, when Edwards thought of the idea and began to research its viability. The following year Edwards ramped up his experiment, calling it “WikiFoods,” and exhibited the idea at the Paris cultural center at which he spends part of the year when not at Harvard.
In 2012, WikiPearl was born. For now three different flavors are ensconced in various edible shells: A coconut skin reveals a heart of mango ice cream; Nutella lovers could fall in love with chocolate ice cream in a hazelnut skin; and vanilla within a peanut shell rounds out the flavors.
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Edwards made it clear his goal to decouple plastic and food was a motivating factor. “But at the end of the day," he said, "people buy food products because they like them, not to solve the world’s problem.” Taste, health and design were the drivers to deliver a product that is both more sustainable and delicious. Technically the entire product is not edible: each WikiPearl will be packaged in a plant-based cellophane and paper package Edwards claims will biodegrade in 15-30 days.
Biomimicry had a role in the development of WikiPearl; Edwards said he strived to meld the functions of various food casings found in nature. Some, such as the skins of apples and grapes, protect the inside flesh while offering nutrition. Others, such as the outer shell of a coconut or a banana peel, are not edible but offer a more solid barrier than fruit skins and can decompose when properly disposed. The results, according to Edwards, are a shell that will actually keep ice cream colder than conventional plastic casing — and in the event the inside melts, nothing will leak out.
“In the same way you eat an apple or a grape, our ‘skins’ have nutrition, but the technology we use will lead people to buy it because we will give them something not found in food today,” said Edwards.
I asked Edwards what WikiPearl’s benefits were, and he rattled them off immediately. First, portion control, which is a challenge when reaching for that pint of ice cream in a supermarket aisle or at home in the freezer. Such designer ice cream will also boast fewer calories and come in designer combinations currently not on the market. The WikiPearl skins will also offer nutrients crucial for bone and cardiac health.
“In the end,” said Edwards, “the elimination of plastic means a lot to me, but what will make this product go is when consumers say, ‘this is something I haven’t had before’.” One could argue WikiPearl is more about innovation than sustainability — think of this development akin to the idea of a cereal bar, a ho-hum idea today but was a huge rethink of toasted grains when companies first introduced them to consumers a generation ago.
So what is the future of edible packaging beyond these balls of ice cream? WikiPearl is testing other products. Drinks in small edible pear-shaped bottles are one possibility. Vegetable-based snacks within an edible shell is another idea in the hopper. Cheese cubes without the foil is also a possibility.
I assumed WikiPearl would have an uphill battle scoring attention from major food and beverage firms, but Edwards explained quite the opposite has unfolded. Many multinationals, looking for the next great idea, have been calling WikiPearl’s Paris office. The trick is in the ability for such edible packaging technology to scale and gain consumer acceptance. “The focus is on the design, not changing how people eat,” said Edwards.
In fact, WikiPearl’s product at Whole Foods will bear the label of a leading ice cream manufacturer. A soft introduction will occur later this fall with a nationwide launch expected in 2014. Depending on how the new ice cream product resonates with shoppers, watch for more food companies to take notice.
Edwards is bullish. “Food and beverage companies that figure out the plastic problem in food will have a competitive advantage,” he said as we wrapped up our talk. Indeed, such a step in eliminating plastic from both landfills and our earth’s oceans would offer companies big business opportunities while solving problems, such as waste, that will only worsen as the world’s population and consumerism continue to increase.