Fruit that doesn’t spoil? Scientists create protective coating to increase produce shelf life

HOUSTON — Your strawberries might start coming with some extra protein soon! Rice University materials scientist Muhammad Rahman has won a Partnerships for Innovation-Technology Translation award from the National Science Foundation to develop a sustainable, low-cost, egg-based coating to extend the shelf life of fruit and vegetables — with the ultimate goal of improving healthy food access.

“The goal of this project is to develop an eco-friendly, biodegradable, protein-based nanocomposite coating that can be applied to the surface of variously shaped fruits and vegetables,” says Rahman, a Rice assistant research professor in materials science and nanoengineering, in a university release. “The coating will extend shelf life by reducing produce spoilage, dehydration and microbial growth rates.”

The project expands on previous research from Rahman studying the use of egg-based coatings on perishable fruits. That 2020 study showed the product doubled the shelf life of bananas and other fruit. The findings were so strong that in 2021, he and his team member Pulickel Ajayan won the Sustainable Technologies/Future Energy category in the Tech Briefs Create the Future competition. Now, after winning the award from the National Science Foundation, the coating can reach new heights.

“This award will allow me to move this project from lab- to pilot-scale. Food-coating practices currently rely on waxes, and a protein-based coating could really be a game-changer. I think Rice is a great place to be if you’re trying to build bridges between what happens in the lab and real-world applications.”

grocery produce food
(Credit: NeONBRAND on Unsplash)

The coating may save the planet from food waste and global warming

Fruits and veggies spoil very quickly, quicker than any other food in fact. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over half of all produce ends up in a trash bin. Taking things further, in 2010, officials estimated that each person generates roughly 200 pounds of food waste every year. In total, that’s worth over $160 billion.

Food waste is a detriment to the environment too, releasing a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. The Environment Protection Agency released a report in 2021 estimating that the carbon emissions released from food waste and loss in the United States every year are equivalent to around 18 percent of the amount of yearly emissions from American power plants.

“The broader hope for this project is to improve the food industry carbon footprint and sustainability,” concludes Rahman. “I strive to align my research with the challenges of this critical, historic moment that confronts us with the urgent need to address anthropogenic climate change and find real-world solutions for a more sustainable future.”

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