The fight against food waste is increasingly turning to science

The fight against food waste is increasingly turning to science

Hate floury apples and soggy fries? Science can help.

Restaurants, grocers, farmers and food companies are increasingly turning to chemistry and physics to tackle the problem of food waste.

Some are testing powdered peels or chemically enhanced packets that can slow down the ripening process of fruit. Others are developing digital sensors that can tell – more accurately than a label – when meat is safe to eat. And packets affixed to the top of a take-out box use thermodynamics to keep fries crispy.

Experts say the growing awareness of food waste and its incredible cost — both in dollars and in environmental impact — has led to increased efforts to mitigate it. US food waste startups raised $300 billion in 2021, double the amount raised in 2020, according to ReFed, a group that studies food waste.

“It suddenly became a big interest,” said Elizabeth Mitchum, director of the Postharvest Technology Center at the University of California, Davis, who has worked in the field for three decades. “Even companies that have been around for a while are now talking about what they do through this lens.”

In 2019, about 35% of the 229 million tons of food available in the United States — worth about $418 billion — went unsold or uneaten, according to ReFed. Food waste is the largest category of materials placed in municipal landfills, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, which says rotting food releases methane, a problematic greenhouse gas.

ReFed estimates that 500,000 pounds of food could be diverted from landfills each year with high-tech packaging.

Among the products in development is a sensor from Stockholm-based Innoscentia that can determine whether meat is safe based on the buildup of microbes in its packaging. And Ryp Labs, based in the United States and Belgium, is working on a product sticker that would release a vapor to slow ripening.

SavrPak was founded in 2020 by Bill Bergen, an aerospace engineer who was tired of soggy food in his lunch box. He developed a plant-based packet — made with food-safe materials approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — that can fit in a take-out container and absorb condensation, helping to keep food fresh. inside warmer and crispier.

Hattie B’s, a Nashville, Tennessee-based hot chicken chain, was skeptical. But after testing the SavrPaks using humidity sensors, he is now using the packs for catering fried foods and working with SavrPak to integrate the packs into regular take-out containers.

Brian Morris, Hattie B’s vice president of culinary learning and development, said each SavrPak costs the company less than a dollar, but guarantees a better meal.

“When it comes to fried chicken, we kind of lose control the moment it leaves our place,” Morris said. “We don’t want the experience to go down the drain.”

But cost can still be a barrier for some businesses and consumers. Kroger, the nation’s largest grocery chain, ended its multi-year partnership with Goleta, Calif.-based Apeel Sciences this year after it found consumers were unwilling to pay more for products. brushed or sprayed with Apeel’s edible coating to retain moisture and oxygen. outdoors, thus extending the time that produce stays fresh.

Apeel says cured avocados can last a few extra days, while citrus fruits last several weeks. The coating consists of purified mono- and diglycerides, emulsifiers which are common food additives.

Kroger wouldn’t say how much Apeel products cost extra. Apeel would also not reveal the average price premium for products treated with its coating, as it varies by food retailer and grocer. But Apeel says his research shows customers are willing to pay more for products that last longer. Apeel also says he continues to talk to Kroger about other future technologies.

Another major obstacle to developing innovations to preserve food is that each food product has its own biological composition and handling requirements.

“No major change can improve the situation,” said Randy Beaudry, a professor in the department of horticulture at Michigan State University’s school of agriculture.

Beaudry said the complexity has caused some projects to fail. He remembers working with a large packaging company on a container designed to prevent fungus in tomatoes. For the science to work, the tomatoes had to be screened for size and then stem-side up in each container. Eventually, the project was abandoned.

Beaudry said it’s also difficult to determine which technology works best because startups don’t always share data or formulations with outside researchers.

Some companies prefer to build on proven technology, but in new ways. Chicago-based Hazel Technologies, which was founded in 2015, sells 1-methylcyclopropene, or 1-MCP, a gas that has been used for decades to delay the ripening process of fruit. The compound – considered non-toxic by the US Environmental Protection Agency – is usually pumped into sealed storage rooms to inhibit the production of ethylene, a plant hormone.

But Hazel’s real breakthrough is a sachet the size of a sugar packet that can slowly release 1-MCP into a box of produce.

Mike Mazie, facilities and storage manager at BelleHarvest, a large apple packing plant in Belding, Michigan, ordered about 3,000 pouches this year. He used them for excess trash cans that couldn’t fit into the sealed rooms needed for gas.

“If you can get another week out of a bushel of apples, why wouldn’t you?” he said. “It absolutely makes a difference.”

The science is promising but it’s only part of the solution, said Yvette Cabrera, director of food waste for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Most food waste occurs at the residential level, she said; reducing portion sizes, buying smaller amounts of food at a time, or improving the accuracy of date labels could have even more of an impact than technology.

“Overall, as a society, we don’t value food the way it should be,” Cabrera said.


AP National Writer and Visual Journalist Martha Irvine contributed from Belding, Michigan.

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