It's up to 500 times better than plastic at protecting food from oxygen.
Milk Protein Food Packaging
Credit: © Getty Images/RooM RF

It's no secret that the plethora of plastic waste produced by food packaging harms the environment... and possibly even your health. However, a new form of biodegradable and edible packaging is here, and it's made from one of your kitchen's most basic staples: milk.

While a large portion of food packaging is recyclable, the plastic film that wraps around everything from meats to baked goods usually is not. Traditional cling film is not only harmful to the earth, but also kind of bad at preventing spoilage, according to the American Chemical Society. Now, a team of researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed an alternate kind of packaging—one that is entirely edible and made from casein, a protein found in milk.

The revolutionary new material, which will be presented at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, is not only biodegradable and sustainable, but also up to 500 times better than plastics at protecting the food from oxygen. Researchers utilized a citrus pectin blend to toughen up the protein film and create a plastic-like material that is resistant to humidity and high temperatures.

Because their creation is edible, researchers say its culinary potential goes beyond packaging. The milk protein could become a spray on cereal flakes to maintain crunch without the added sugar that is currently used to ward off sogginess.The USDA team is also testing models for individually wrapped dried soups and beverage mixes, which could be tossed directly into water—packaging and all—as the outside layer would dissolve in the liquid, eliminating waste and adding a little extra protein to the dish.

"Everything is in smaller and smaller packaging, which is great for grabbing for lunch, for school, but then it generates so much waste... edible packaging can be great for that," lead researcher Laetitia Bonnaillie tells Bloomberg. Bonnaillie hopes the casein packaging could be particulary beneficial for single-serving foods, like cheese sticks. "I use these a lot, and my thought every time is there's almost more plastic than cheese," she says of the waste-heavy snack.

While many are already heralding the sustainable material as the future of eco-friendly food packaging, it will likely be years until the USDA can officially make it available. However, one day a protein-packed film around your food could be the new normal, creating a more sustainable and nutritious future for grocers and consumers everywhere.