The Indiana company MonoSol is also exploring this space. Earlier this month, MonoSol officially announced its launch of Vivos edible, water-soluble film or polymer. The Vivos packets can hold hot chocolate powder or instant coffee or oatmeal or whey protein drinks. Just place the package in either hot or cold water, and the edible film dissolves. (Here’s a demo). Dissolving, edible packaging could be used in your home kitchen, at restaurants, or even in the military.
Both companies face psychological barriers in getting consumers to eat their packaging. “We understand people are hesitant,” says Sumeet Kumar, senior manager at MonoSol. “People may think … am I eating a plastic? Is that OK?” While it seems strange to watch the film dissolve and then eat it, we actually consume polymers all the time—they coat pharmaceutical pills and are used in breath strips, for instance.
So, how far away are we from seeing these products in stores? For MonoSol, the target date is the end of next year. In late October, in Paris, Edwards and his team will launch the first WikiBar, which will first give out samples in targeted tastings and then sell some products to the general public. By the end of 2013, Edwards hopes that there will be 30 or so WikiBars in the United States and Europe, as well as one or two Wiki-fied items in stores, possibly ice cream or yogurt. Edwards won’t discuss whom he’s working with, but it’s been reported by the U.K.’s Daily Mail that his researchers have worked with Danone, maker of Actimel yogurt drinks and Activa yogurts.
Edwards—who has also invented an inhalable chocolate called Le Whif, inhalable caffeine, and even an inhalable tuberculosis vaccine—also hopes to create WikiCell vending machines and is currently testing out a prototype machine that runs without electricity in a rural community outside of Johannesburg. He imagines a future where mini WikiCell machines sit on kitchen countertops, allowing consumers to design their own packaging, although why, exactly, we might want to do that is unclear, as is how that would actually work in practice.
Ever since the Chinese first coated apples with wax in the second century, entrepreneurs have experimented in edible packaging. Last month, two researchers in South Korea published a paper suggesting an edible packaging made from trout skin. A British company just received a grant to make a spray-on, edible, protective film that could reduce waste from meat packaging. Another collaboration recently produced some lovely if impractical tomato-based containers. (There have also been, meanwhile, some remarkable recent advances in smart packaging.) But the major reason edible packaging hasn’t yet taken off is that companies have struggled to make it cheap, hygienic, and, most important, tasty.
The danger, of course, is that WikiCells and Vivos film could end up just two more in a string of curious novelties, going the way of Crystal Pepsi, Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt Shampoo, and Bic’s disposable pantyhose. But the supermarket chain Billa, at least, is probably paying attention.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.