Editorial Feature

Reducing Food Waste with Cambridge Crops' All-Natural Silk Protein Coatings

Cambridge Crops has developed an all-natural food coating to slow down the spoiling process and provide healthier preservatives. Image Credits: SpeedKingz / Shutterstock.com

A company called Cambridge Crops specializing in the development of natural food preservatives has pioneered an all-natural food coating that slows down the spoiling process to extend shelf life and cost-effectively aid food waste reduction throughout the supply chain.

The edible food coating, which can be applied to meats, vegetables, fruit and seafood at any point from farm to shelf, can also benefit the environment by reducing the use of single-use plastics and chemicals such as fungicides.

What are the Food Waste Reduction Goals in the US?

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), an estimated 30 to 40% of food produced for human consumption is wasted in the United States every year. In 2015, the USDA teamed up with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set a goal of reducing food waste in the US by 50% by the year 2030. In 2016, the USDA and EPA launched the U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champion program, which companies can sign up to as part of their commitment to reducing food waste in their operations by 2030.

Management of Food Waste Between 1960 and 2015

The table and graph below were created by the EPA based on data gathered on the management of food between 1960 and 2015.

1960-2015 Data on Food in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)

Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2014 2015
Generation 12,200 12,800 13,000 23,860 30,700 32,930 35,740 38,670 39,730
Recycled - - - - - - - - -
Composted - - - - 680 690 970 1,940 2,100
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 50 260 4,060 5,820 5,870 6,150 7,200 7,380
Landfilled 12,200 12,750 12,740 19,800 24,200 26,370 28,620 29,530 30,250

Image Credits: United States Environmental Protection Agency

Founded by Adam Behrens in 2016, the agriculture technology company Cambridge Crops has been working on sustainable solutions to preserve the shelf life of fresh foods by developing novel, edible all-natural coatings. Behrens has previously worked in the Langer Lab at MIT developing approaches to improving nutrition in the developing world and has spent his career developing technologies for agriculture, nutrition and healthcare.

Where Cambridge Crops Comes In

Using protein extracted from natural silk, the Cambridge Crops team has developed an all-natural protective biofilm to help food producers, processors and retailers to significantly extend shelf life and reduce food waste.

With a team of experts behind the project, including vice president of research and development, Sezin Yigit, and research associates Nadia Hallaj and Lester Chong, the company aims for the new all-natural coating to expand access to nutritious and environmentally friendly food across the world.

How Does All-Natural Food Coating Technology Work?

Cambridge Crops’ technology harnesses the power of silk protein to combat the three main ways foods become spoiled: dehydration, oxidation and microbial growth.

According to Cambridge Crops, the solution can be easily implemented at a wash or coating station in the supply chain and has proven efficacy across a broad range of food products from whole produce and cut produce to meat and fish.

The technology enables food producers, food processors and retailers to extend shelf lives, reach new markets and reduce waste.

Cambridge Crops

Using only salt and water, the fibroin protein is extracted from natural silk. A solution made up of 99% water and 1% silk fibroin is then applied to the food surface. Once applied, the water evaporates and leaves an imperceivable protective edible coating that helps food stay fresher and taste better for longer, without altering the food.

The tasteless, odorless and invisible layer prevents dehydration by keeping water locked in. It also maintains nutrients by keeping air out to prevent oxidation and slows the growth of mold, bacteria and yeast. These preservative measures significantly reduce the rate at which the produce ripens and spoils.

Where Did the Idea Come From?

The technology is based on a study conducted by researchers at the Department of Engineering, Tufts University. The team included Benedetto Marelli, who is now the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Why is Fibroin Protein Useful as a Food Coating?

The fibroin protein is the source of silk’s strength and Marelli and colleagues first experimented with its potential to protect the exterior of fruits and vegetables in 2016. The team used a fibroin water spray to coat strawberries and bananas and then stored them at 71 degrees alongside fruits that had not been coated. After nine days, the uncoated bananas were extremely soft and uncoated strawberries had shriveled. Coated bananas, on the other hand, had stayed firm, while the coated strawberries were not shriveled and still juicy.

In a paper published in the journal Nature, the team demonstrated that the coating has the potential to extend the shelf life of strawberries by as much as 50%. They said the findings suggested that silk fibroin prolongs the freshness of perishable fruits by slowing fruit respiration, extending fruit firmness and preventing dehydration.

Prize-Winning Research

In May 2017, the MIT-Tufts University team Cambridge Crops won the first-place prize of $12,000 at the second annual Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize after presenting their findings that the silk-based coating extended the shelf life of perishable fruits by up to 50%.

During the team’s winning pitch, team member Jacques-Henry Grislain said the technology has the potential to significantly reduce waste at every step of the supply chain “for producers, distributors, and consumers.”

After the prize money was awarded, Grislain said the money would fund the researchers’ ongoing experiments to ensure that the all-natural coating is commercially viable.

Lead researcher Fiorenzo Omenetto noted that if the spray could be developed on an industrial scale, it could minimize the need for single-use plastics and address the problem of food supply waste, which translates to an average of 20 pounds of food per person per month, according to the FAO.

Conclusion

The combination of increased food waste and the little progress that has so far been made in managing it represents a significant global economic and environmental burden that negatively impacts on society in several ways. Nutritious food that could have been fed to families that needed it is instead sent to landfills. Plastic food packaging is also sent to landfills or finds its way into the ocean. The storage, transport and disposal of discarded food are all costly processes that require funding.

Innovative new strategies to address challenges facing the food and agricultural industry are urgently needed as the world becomes increasingly aware of the need to reduce the use of single-use plastics, eliminate unnecessary packaging and find new ways to keep produce fresh for longer.

Many technology companies are working hard to revolutionize how food is preserved and packaged, and Cambridge Crops is an award-winner in this area.

Cambridge Crops has managed to raise $4 million of investment capital to fund their innovative silk protein technology. The investment round was led by MIT’s capital firm, The Engine, and includes contributions from Closed Loop Ventures, SOSV, Refactor Capital, Bluestein & Associates, and Supply Chain Ventures.

The company intends to use the capital to complete FDA and USDA regulatory steps to scale-up production and continuously build meaningful commercial relationships within the food and agriculture industry.

References and Further Reading

A new kind of protection for all kinds of foods. Cambridge Crops. Available at: https://www.cambridgecrops.com/

Emerging trends shaping the future of food. Foodnavigator.com. Rabobank. Available at: https://www.foodnavigator.com/News/Promotional-Features/Sustainable-food-trends-shaping-the-future-of-food

Food waste FAQs. USDA: United States Department of Agriculture. Available at: https://www.usda.gov/foodwaste/faqs

Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling. EPA: United states Environmental Protection Agency. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/food-material-specific-data

Meet the Cambridge Crops team. Cambridge Crops. Available at: https://www.cambridgecrops.com/our-team#!

Subtle silk protein wash that preserves food garners US$4m investment. FoodIngredientsFirst. Missy Green. Available at: https://www.foodingredientsfirst.com/news/subtle-silk-protein-wash-that-preserves-food-garners-us4m-investment.html

Is Silk the Sustainable Packaging of the Future? Organic authority. Emily Monaco. Available at: https://www.organicauthority.com/buzz-news/p46632

The Power of Silk Protein. Cambridge Crops. Available at: https://www.cambridgecrops.com/our-tech

Frequently asked questions. USDA: United States Department of Agriculture. Office of the chief Economist. Available at: https://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/faqs.htm

Funding solutions for pressing food and agriculture issues. MIT News on campus and around the world. Rob Matheson. Available at: http://news.mit.edu/2017/food-agribusiness-innovation-prize-competition-0503

Cambridge Crops raises $4m in funding to combat food waste. Foodbev Media. Bryony Andrews. Available at: https://www.foodbev.com/news/cambridge-crops-raises-4-million-in-seed-funding-to-combat-food-waste/

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