MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A few environmentally-minded companies are rolling out products with edible packaging. The idea is why dump tons of waste into landfills when the container your food comes in could be part of the snack. One product, about to be rolled out in stores in the Northeast, demonstrates just how tricky that is. Sam Evans Brown, of New Hampshire Public Radio, explains.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, we'll try one of those.
SAM EVANS BROWN, BYLINE: On opening day of the first Whole Foods store in Nashua, New Hampshire, Stoneyfield handed out free samples of a new frozen yogurt novelty.
DEBBIE FARRELL: The skin was so soft...
JANE DRAGONE: It taste like a - almost like an Italian strawberry -Italian ice on the outside - very good. Who invented this?
BROWN: The product Jane Dragone and Debbie Farrell are trying is called a WikiPearl. They're bite-sized frozen yogurt balls surrounded by gel-like, edible skin made of fruit or coconut particles and a seaweed extract held together by a fancy, science-y process.
FARRELL: If you had a function, this is a great end to a cookout, anything.
BROWN: The idea that led to the pearls is straight out of Willy Wonka. What if you could make food in a package that you could eat, just like a grape or cherry tomato? So it's more than a little ironic that when you walk inside the Nashua Whole Foods, you find the WikiPearls almost individually wrapped - two yogurt balls per bag.
ERIC FREEDMAN: Conceptually, it is edible packaging.
BROWN: Eric Freedman is the Senior Vice President of marketing at Wikifoods, which makes the skin for Stoneyfield's pearls.
FREEDMAN: The product could be merchandised on shelves with no packaging and no plastics.
BROWN: He says, in an ideal world, the pearls would be in a bulk food bid and you would scoop them into your own little reusable container. Even though, so far, retailers have insisted on packaging. Freedman says he thinks consumers are ready to ditch the plastic.
FREEDMAN: We just need to find the right environment to introduce the product in its, kind of, purest form.
BROWN: That environment could be more like a restaurant, or at a buffet, where you could serve them with tongs. Certainly, that would ease the mind of consumers like Michael Bates.
MICHAEL BATES: Well, I think you have to be careful of people shoving their hands in or trying one thing, it's cold, and dropping it back in. And stuff like that. I mean, I don't mind having a little bit of packaging 'cause it makes the product hygienic and safer.
BROWN: The pearls are already on offer in five Whole Food stores in New England. By the end, of the month they'll be available in 35 Whole Foods in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. But how much of this talk of edible packaging is simply marketing?
FREEDMAN: So the skins are melt free and mess free.
BROWN: Eric Freedman of Wikifoods says they can be enjoyed on the go and in places where you can't bring regular frozen yogurt because of the skin.
FREEDMAN: But they do not need to be frozen.
BROWN: But when I let a couple of them thaw here in the studio, after 40 minutes the filling oozed out of one, leaving a puddle of yogurt with what looked like a deflated jellyfish on top. Packaging expert Sara Risch says that could be because frozen foods can partially thaw and re-freeze as many as six times when traveling from the manufacturer to our freezers.
SARA RISCH: Where it may have been perfect if you kept it perfectly frozen, the moisture from inside the product can start, basically degrading the barrier layer that they have.
BROWN: Risch for one thinks there are reasons to be skeptical of the whole idea of edible packaging. The food that is already in its own skin, fresh fruits and vegetables, is the food that spoils the most quickly. Risch worries unless edible packaging can be refined to the point where it works as well as plastic, it might simply mean swapping throwing away plastic, for throwing away more rotting food. So for now, just like pierogies and dumplings, WikiPearls are restricted to the freezer aisle in a bag. For NPR News, I'm Sam Evans-Brown in Concord, New Hampshire.
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