Edible Films and Coatings for Food Applications

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Edible Films and Coatings: Why, What, and How?

  • Attila E. PavlathAffiliated withWestern Regional Research Center, ARS Email author 
  • , William OrtsAffiliated withWestern Regional Research Center, ARS

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Edible films and coatings, such as wax on various fruits, have been used for centuries to prevent loss of moisture and to create a shiny fruit surface for aesthetic purposes. These practices were accepted long before their associated chemistries were understood, and are still carried out in the present day. The term, edible film, has been related to food applications only in the past 50 years. One semi-sarcastic tale was that spies’ instructions were written on edible films, so that in the off-chance they were captured, they could easily destroy their secrets by eating them. In most cases, the terms film and coating are used interchangeably to indicate that the surface of a food is covered by relatively thin layer of material of certain composition. However, a film is occasionally differentiated from a coating by the notion that it is a stand-alone wrapping material, whereas a coating is applied and formed directly on food surface itself. As recently as 1967, edible films had very little commercial use, and were limited mostly to wax layers on fruits. During intervening years, a significant business grew out of this concept (i.e., in 1986, there were little more than ten companies offering such products, while by 1996, numbers grew to 600 companies). Today, edible film use has expanded rapidly for retaining quality of a wide variety of foods, with total annual revenue exceeding $100 million.

Why do we need edible films? Most food consumed comes directly from nature, where many of them can be eaten immediately as we take them from the tree, vine or ground. However, with increased transportation distribution systems, storage needs, and advent of ever larger supermarkets and warehouse stores, foods are not consumed just in the orchard, on the field, in the farmhouse, or close to processing facilities. It takes considerable time for a food product to reach the table of the consumer. During time-consuming steps involved in handling, storage and transportation, products start to dehydrate, deteriorate, and lose appearance, flavor and nutritional value. If no special protection is provided, damage can occur within hours or days, even if this damage is not immediately visible.