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Don't Throw That Wrapper Away: Eat It!

Researchers create edible food packaging

(HealthDay is the new name for HealthScoutNews.)

FRIDAY, Aug. 22, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Soon you might not have to throw away your sandwich wrapper; you'll just eat it instead.

Tara McHugh, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and her fellow USDA researchers have created edible food wraps made of vegetables and fruits.

McHugh says the wraps would be a healthy alternative to plastic or aluminum foil and better for the environment too because they'd reduce waste produced by synthetic wrapping.

The edible wraps consist of a flexible, paper-thin film made entirely of fruits or vegetables, and, like synthetic wraps, help preserve foods.

And the uses of the wraps, which can protect foods in freezers, could go well beyond sandwiches, says McHugh, research leader in the processed foods research unit at the USDA's Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif.

For example, McHugh says, you could cover leftover pasta with a tomato wrap, which would melt into the pasta when heated. Or wrap your pork chops in an apple film that would become a glaze. Or try a strawberry wrap on cut bananas, or eat a carrot wrap with the salad it preserves.

"There's certainly a tremendous amount of interest from consumers and food companies," McHugh says.

Amid rising health-care costs and concerns about obesity, she says, "people are looking for new ways to consume fruits and vegetables and improve our diets."

Demand for healthy alternatives, including the edible wraps, also will increase as the U.S. population continues aging, McHugh says.

The wraps can be made from fruits and vegetables, including broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, mangos, peaches, pears, apples, papayas and strawberries.

McHugh says the research unit hopes its work prompts a company to make the wraps and sell them commercially within the next six months. Companies have expressed interest in producing the wraps, she says.

Sheets of pureed fruits are available as snack foods, but the USDA center is the first to explore produce-based films as food wrappings, which could improve storage and flavor, McHugh says.

"One of the most surprising things to me and to others who I show these films to is you can form a fully functional film from most fruits and vegetables in 100 percent form," McHugh says.

McHugh says the wraps are biodegradable, unlike plastic and aluminum foil, and thus would help prevent waste and environmental damage to land and water.

USDA researchers make the wraps by pureeing and diluting fruits or vegetables to free-flowing mixtures, which are then spread onto Teflon sheets to dry overnight. Lipids -- in this case, vegetable oils-- could be used to make the wraps more water-resistant, she says.

McHugh says many Americans fall short of the minimum five recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables. The wraps -- a few of them would equal one serving -- could boost consumption, she says.

Althea Zanecosky, a dietician based in Lafayette Hill, Pa., agrees the wraps could help people, especially children, reach the recommended daily fruit and vegetable intake. Kids are drawn to products such as purple yogurt, blue applesauce and colorful sports drinks, adds Zanecosky, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

"Children are part of this group of people that could use more fruit or vegetables in their diet, and this might be one way to get one more extra fruit or vegetable into a child's diet," she says. "So if you could wrap a sandwich in strawberry wrapping that was edible, I would think lots of kids would think that was very cool."

But Zanecosky wonders whether nutrients -- including vitamins, minerals and fiber -- could be lost while processing the fruits and vegetables into the wraps.

McHugh says she's confident the fiber from fruits and vegetables would be retained, but adds that the wraps have not been analyzed for nutrient retention. Any nutrients lost during processing, she says, could be replaced through fortification.

McHugh and her colleagues have already had success creating a snack bar made of 100 percent fruit and sold on the West Coast.

More information

For more on getting all your fruits and vegetables, visit the National Cancer Institute's 5 A Day site. Everything you ever wanted to know about produce, including recipes, can be found at aboutproduce.com. And the American Dietetic Association has a wealth of information, including daily nutrition tips.

SOURCES: Tara McHugh, research leader, processed foods research unit, U.S. Department of Agriculture's Western Regional Research Center, Albany, Calif.; Althea Zanecosky, dietician, Lafayette Hill, Pa., and spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association
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