Natural coatings as an ally to reduce food waste

Food loss is a significant issue in today’s world; the food that is not consumed and is wasted constitutes a loss in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. Food losses directly impact food security, quality and safety, economic development, and the environment. Food waste is associated with a waste of resources, including water, energy, land, inputs, and GHG emissions.

Definitions of “food loss” and “food waste”

Food loss and waste, which sometimes are used as synonyms, constitute two different processes. Food losses refer to the decrease in edible food that occurs through the supply chain; food losses occur at the production, post-harvest, and processing stages of the food supply chain. The loss of food at the end of the chain, either in retail or final consumption, is called food waste.

Losses due to storage, transportation, distribution, marketing and consumption can be alleviated by using specifically designed food coatings that can prevent spoilage and rotting.

Causes of food loss and food waste

The exact causes of food loss and waste vary across the world and are very dependent on the specific context. However, it is generally possible to ascertain that food losses are influenced by crop production patterns, infrastructure and capacity, marketing chains, distribution channels and consumer purchasing practices.

Even if food is wasted through the supply chain, different phenomena can be detected in high-income and low-income countries. In medium and high-income countries, food is mainly wasted at the retail or consumer level; this means that it is disposed of, even if it is still suitable for consumption. In low-income countries, food is mainly lost in the production, post-harvest, and processing stages of the supply chain.

Food loss and waste in numbers

A worldwide study estimated that around 30% of the world’s food was lost or wasted every year. A more recent FAO assessment concluded that up to 14% of food is wasted in the world from post-harvest up to the retail level. Food is lost in every continent, with the higher rates occurring in Central and Southern Asia (21%). In comparison, the rates for industrialized nations in North America and Europe are close to 16%. The lowest rates in the globe are found in Australia and New Zealand (6%).

In terms of specific food categories that are lost; roots, tubers and oil-bearing crops are the highest (25%), followed by fruits and vegetables (22%), meat and animal products (12%), and cereals and pulses (9%). Fruits and vegetables are mainly lost during on-farm operations, storage and processing, and packaging.

In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30% and 40% of the food supply; this corresponds to around 60 million tonnes and US$161 billion. In the European Union, around 88 million tons of food are wasted each year, with a cost of 143 billion euros.

The best approach to reducing food loss and waste is not to create it in the first place. Waste can be avoided in several ways, including improving product development, storage, shipping, labeling, and marketing. However, if excess food is unavoidable, several strategies can be taken, including donating it for hunger relief. If food is in an inedible state, it can be recycled into animal feed, compost, bioenergy, and bioplastics.

Food waste in fruits, the importance of cosmetic appearances

In high-income countries, fruit and vegetable losses occur mainly in the consumption and distribution stages. In contrast, in low-income countries, a higher proportion of the product is lost between the production and processing stages. The losses and waste that occur in the different stages worldwide amount to nearly one half of all fruit and vegetables produced being lost.

Appearance quality standards for fresh produce from supermarkets can lead to food waste. Indeed, a perfectly fine product in terms of nutrition can be rejected based on size, shape, or appearance. Cosmetic specifications that normalize the size, shape and color of food are crucial along the whole food chain; from producers to intermediary and middle actors such as exporters and importers, and final purchasers, including retailers and consumers. Cosmetic specifications ultimately determine what food can and cannot be sold based solely on external appearance.

Due to the increased scrutiny of food waste, the European Union began to relax its regulations on selling fruits and vegetables with imperfect appearance. Retailers have slowly and cautiously begun offering misshapen products. Nonetheless, consumer behavior hasn’t changed from one day to the next. In general, slightly or moderately misshapen fruits and vegetables have a better chance of being bought than heavily deformed products. Even when consumers have a better perception of different shapes and colors in their fruits, it is still critical to ensure that products last for longer and that food waste is reduced.

Fruit coatings, key in reducing fruit waste

Intermediaries, for whom food is an input, have a clear incentive to reduce food loss. Food importers can play a crucial role in lessening food losses and waste by carefully choosing their suppliers and supply chain methods.

There are several techniques to preserve produce for a longer time. Among them is applying coatings that can reduce moisture loss, slow the post-harvest decay, and extend the product’s shelf life. Coatings can close small cracks in the skin of fruits, creating a barrier that stops the spread of bacteria and fungi that can affect the product.

Several coating products exist in the market today; they are made from either all-natural ingredients (like PolyNatural Shel-Life™), synthetic ingredients, or a mix of both. Among the most common ingredients are sugarcane, carnauba, beeswax, and polyethylene. However, all coatings are not received equally in global food markets. The European Union has strict food regulations for the usage of food coatings, allowing the usage of Beeswax (E 901), Candelilla wax (E 902), Carnauba wax (E 903), Shellac (E 904) and Microcrystalline wax (E 905). Furthermore, if the product -and its ingredients- are certified, they can be sold in organic markets.

Some chemicals are banned from the UK and the European Union, such as morpholine; complete fruit shipments that contained this chemical have been banned from commercializing in the region, with great losses to producers and traders.

Another reason for food importers to prefer natural coatings is to satisfy consumer’s demands. Current consumer’s preferences go along with buying natural, organic, and fair-trade certified products. Therefore, trading these products is not only a sound environmental choice but also good for business.

PolyNatural: a solution for natural coatings to preserve fruits

PolyNatural offers a natural coating based on vegetable extracts and vegetable polymers that extends the shelf life of fruits. It reduced the incidence of rot by 3% and dehydration by 7%, increasing by 40% gondola days. Shel-Life™’s PolyNatural offers the same or better performance than synthetic waxes while being natural, which positions it at an advantage for discerning customers and strict international markets.

On organic apples, Shel-Life™ performs 4.85 times better in terms of rot incidence, reducing it to 0.4%. It has the same performance on conventional apples as synthetic waxes. On conventional nectarines, Shel-Life™ is 132% superior in controlling rot incidence and reduces the fruit’s dehydration. On lemons, Shel-Life™ shows 75% less dehydration and 50% less rotten incidence. On avocados, it reduces dehydration and extends shelf life by 20%.

PolyNatural products include specially designed coatings for pomaceous, citrus, stone fruits, and avocado. With more than 35,000 tons already shipped and organic certifications in the USA and the EU, their coatings are a sure bet for food importers.

Waste and food losses are no longer an option for most countries, and they have implemented legislation that will impact the whole food chain, from small food producers to big export companies. Most importantly, an agreement has been reached to diminish the impact that food waste and losses have on the environment and society. The private sector is taking an active role in this, working hand to hand with governmental agencies. An example of this is the Courtauld Commitment, “a voluntary agreement aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing waste within the UK grocery sector”, more than 50 retailers are already part of this.

Another interesting approach is the “10x20x30” supply chain initiative, where 10 of the biggest food and agricultural companies “commit to act and engage their 20 largest suppliers to do the same by 2030”. 

The time is now, importers, exporters and trade companies are taking action and, by reducing food waste and losses, are gaining reputation and profitability.

The growth of investment in agri-food startups

The global agribusiness scenario is currently defined by several factors, including the growing world population and varying dietary patterns, the limitation on the use of fossil fuels to mitigate climate change, intense economic competition, the possible effects of climate change on food production and the whole food systems, and the effects of COVID-19 on food production and demand. 

Framed by these issues, it is clear that there are challenges to produce more food, energy, and fibers more efficiently, conserving resources while at the same time polluting less.

The importance of agri-food innovations

As a critical driver of productivity and economic growth, innovation in agriculture happens across every dimension of the production cycle and along the entire value chain, including crops, livestock, or fisheries production to market access and inputs’ management.  

Innovation is also much more than a buzzword or a fashionable notion. It has become a key issue for companies, policies, and society globally; it is a factor of competitiveness for enterprises that can lead to improved productivity, cost reductions, and the opening of new markets. 

Several areas have a great potential for innovation in the agri-food sector (also called agtech or agrotech), including digital data-driven solutions, like data analytics and big data, automation and robotics, development and production of new food ingredients, and bio-based and biodegradable materials for packaging.

To make sure that local, regional, and global food production is prepared to surpass the future challenges, more innovation in the agri-food sector is critical. Furthermore, the industry has great potential for invention by using new technologies, such as precision farming, sustainable packaging, and blockchain-based food tracing. 

Challenges of agri-food innovations

Innovation in the agri-food sector is not always easy. Businesses in the sector are interdependent and usually compete based on price rather than quality or environmental impact; this, associated with low margins and long payback periods, limits taking chances on innovation. 

Payback times of costs associated with innovating in new ingredients, molecules, or food products is around 3 to 5 years, with an R&D (research and development) of 4 to 10 years and a breakeven point of 7 to 15 years. The development process of new and innovative products requires more time and money to enter the market and are, therefore, riskier. Financiers must be prepared to accept long maturity and payback periods.

Financing agri-food innovation

At a world level, public-sector spending in agricultural R&D has stagnated during the latest decade in most high-income countries but increased in middle-income countries. As a comparison, between 2008 and 2013, public-sector spending in agricultural R&D fell more than 20% in the USA but increased by 70% in China. Meanwhile, private-sector R&D spending has been thriving, accounting for more than 60% globally.  

The growing investment in agricultural innovation has been led by an impressive convergence of advances in agronomy, biology, animal and plant science, robotics, and digitalization; all of which are part of the ‘digital agriculture’ revolution.

A recent EU study indicates that the demand for new financing tools in the agri-food sector has risen steadily during the last decade. In the region, several institutions, including the European Investment Bank, offer a wide range of instruments to finance the sector, such as loans, equity products, guarantees, and advisory services. 

Investment in agri-food startups has grown by 370% since 2013. However, 2020 has been a year like no other. The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the investment in agri-food innovations; this is already apparent when comparing the results for Q1-2020 (around US$550 million) and Q1-2019 (around US$1 billion).

In 2019, agri-food startups raised US$4.7 billion, representing a 6,8% year-over-year growth; this is particularly important compared with other economic sectors’ behavior, across which investment fell around 16%. Even though the number of deals decreased in 2019, the total investment was larger thanks to several over-US$100-million contracts, including the French Ynsect, Germany’s Infarm, California’s Plenty, and New Jersey’s AeroFarms.

Interesting agri-food startups to follow in 2021

AgBiome natural high-tech protection for your crops

AgBiome, founded in the USA in 2012, has raised US$119 million in investment. It is a biotechnology company that uses new knowledge of the plant’s biome to create innovative agriculture products. Their products help farmers combat some of the major crop production problems, such as insects, nematodes, and diseases. AgBiome’s products include the most diverse microbial collection for agricultural applications. Genesis™: is a gene and strain identification system that allows them to efficiently capture and screen microorganisms and proteins that kill insect pests, fungal pathogens, and weeds.

The Yield increasing production sustainably

The Yield is an Australian company founded in 2016 that has raised US$10.15 million in investments.  The Yield is an AI-driven, microclimate sensing, analytics, and prescription platform for irrigated crops. The company’s focus is to help farmers increase yields, reduce risks associated with frost, extreme heat, and disease events, and optimize their supply chains. The company has global patents for using AI to predict weather variables at microclimatic hotspot levels. Sensing+ is an end-to-end solution for large-scale growing operations that combines sensors, data analytics, and apps.

Agri-food innovation in Latin America

During 2019, US$1.4 billion were raised by agri-food startups in Latin America. Even if Rappi accounted for a significant portion with its record-breaking US$1 billion, there was a 40% year-over-year growth in the number of deals, highlighting the region’s growing activity.

2020 has been a good year for agri-food startup investment in the region; indeed, the third quarter ended, breaking new records. In September alone, more than US$400 million were invested in three Latin American rising companies. 

Among the most interesting startups in the region are: 

AgroSmart insights for farmers and the agribusinesses

AgroSmart is a Brazilian company founded in 2014 in Brazil that has raised US$8.8 million in investment. AgroSmart generates agronomic models based on seed genetics, soil type, and microclimate. The company builds market intelligence by combining ground data and best-in-class analytical capabilities to provide actionable insights to develop a more sustainable and productive agriculture. AgroSmart uses sensors to monitor crops and satellite images to generate recommendations regarding irrigation, climate, and diseases; the company also generates data to orient genetic development and seed placing strategies.

Beeflow pollinating crops naturally

Beeflow is an Argentinian company founded in 2017 that recently raised US$3 million in investment. Beeflow is a provider of professional pollination services that aim to facilitate crop pollination using honeybees. The company’s bees are fed with a unique organic mixture that enhances their immune system and helps them fly for a longer time in colder climates; they also specialize in specifically targeted crops, enabling farmers to increase crop yields by up to 90%.

Polynatural natural food coatings – fighting food waste

Polynatural is a Chilean company founded in 2016 that has raised US$800 thousand in investments. The company develops a 100% natural product designed to coat agricultural products. Polynatural produces edible organic coatings made only with natural ingredients that increase the shelf life of fresh produce by reducing microbial contamination and dehydration; this also improves the product’s appearance and smell. Shel-life® is manufactured with natural extracts, lipids and plant polymers, an alternative for synthetic coatings with equal or better performance and some organic certifications.

Even if agri-food businesses have been part of investment portfolios for a long time, the convergence of climate change, the global pandemic, and food security have contributed to bringing them to the forefront of venture capitalists and private equity firms’ investments. They not only see the opportunity to contribute to society but also to have a high profit. This is the case of pension funds, which by financing sustainable agri-food companies and startups, meet their social and environmental goals while delivering healthy returns. 

Agri-food startups are on the rise, and this is the time to invest sustainably and profitably.

Is natural wax the coating solution for long lasting fruits?

Fruits are an essential source of vitamins and dietary fiber that are indispensable for human health and wellbeing. However, fruits are highly perishable; they can get damaged during transport and marketing and have short shelf lives –”shelf life” refers to the time that a product, especially medicine and food, can be kept before it becomes too old to be sold or consumed–. Producers can apply wax to protect them from decay and dehydration.

Naturally, fruits produce their own coating –the epicarp– or wax to protect themselves from drying or getting oversaturated with water when it rains. However, once the fruit is picked and washed, the natural protection comes off along with the residual dirt and chemicals from the orchard. Coatings can be used to preserve fruits for a longer time.

Nutrition and waste

Water is the main component of fruits. It can reach almost 90% of its weight for cantaloupes and watermelons, and close to 80% for apricots, oranges, blueberries, pineapples, peaches, raspberries, and plums. The passage of time after harvest and environmental conditions can cause excessive loss of moisture in fruits, resulting in wilting and shriveling, as well as disagreeable textures, which can negatively affect the fruit’s appearance edible quality.

Coatings can be applied to reduce moisture loss, slow post-harvest decay, extend the product’s shelf life. Using coatings make it possible to close small cracks and dents in the skin and create a physical barrier to stop bacterial and fungal pathogens from affecting the product.

Apples are perhaps the most known fruit to be waxed, but it certainly not the only one. Citrus fruits, stone fruits, avocados, cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, peppers, and even jellybeans are commonly coated.

The most recent FAO report on food loss and waste showed that 14% of the total food produced is lost between the post-harvest and retail level. If we consider only fruits, this amount is close to 22%. Preserving foods and lowering loss and waste is essential to ensure that the food system is more sustainable and equitable.

What are coatings made of?

Coatings have been used for a long time as a way to preserve fruit. Indeed, the records show that the Chinese began using coatings in the twelfth century after noticing that it slowed water loss and fermentation; Chinese citrus farmers used to pack oranges and lemons in wooden boxes filled with wax before shipping them. By the fifteenth century, the Japanese used a film made by boiling soymilk to coat their fruits before storing them. In the US, hot melt paraffin waxes were used since the 1930s to cover fruits and carnauba wax and oil in water emulsions since the 1950s to protect fruits and vegetables. Afterward, different edible films were made from various polysaccharides, proteins, and lipids.

Modern coatings are made from a mixture of resins, beeswax, sugarcane, carnauba, and other substances, and they accomplish two tasks, preserving the fruit and making it look appealing. Waxes can delay fruit ripening by controlling its respiration, inhibit the growth of mold, protect the fruit from bruising when it is being handled or traveling, while at the same time enhancing its appearance by giving it a glossy shine.

Furthermore, edible coatings made from natural ingredients are an environmentally ideal package; they are biodegradable, can be directly consumed, and their main ingredients come from renewable sources. This is a clear contrast from synthetic materials, such as paraffin, polyethylene, and plastics that come from a limited supply of fossil fuels.

Even though synthetic and natural coatings fill the same role, they are certainly distinct. Among the main advantages of choosing natural coatings is going in line with current consumers’ preferences, who are more inclined to buy natural -or naturally- based products. Therefore, coatings made from shellac, rosin, gum, ethanol from sugar, and other ingredients are highly desirable.

According to researchers from McGill University, modern coatings can be made of up to 50 different components, most of which are in the esters chemical category. Among the most commonly used ingredients in current waxes are carnauba wax that comes from the leaves of a Brazilian palm, shellac extracted from the Indian lac bug, and candelia wax that originates from a desert plant. Commonly used synthetic esters are made by mixing sucrose and fatty acids. Polyethylene can also be applied in a fine layer, as an alternative ethylene derived from corn ethanol can be used.

Among the main benefits of using natural ingredients to prepare coatings are the inherent characteristics of each component, for example:

  • Preservation of quality attributes and good water vapor barrier from using guar gum, candelilla wax, glycerol, and gallic acid.
  • Good oxygen barrier property and transparency from whey protein.
  • Smooth and homogeneous coating layer, and hydrophilic surface from using soy protein.

Are coatings safe to eat?

Videos and posts have appeared claiming that wax is unsafe to eat; however, those claims are not true. Waxes are used in small amounts to give a microscopic coating that surrounds the product’s surface; thus, each piece of fruit only has a drop or two of wax. Furthermore, coatings used on fruits and vegetables have to pass strict regulations from the US Food and Drug Administration or the European Food Safety Authority.

Coatings used on fruits and vegetables have to meet the regulations ordered by the authorities in each territory. The regulatory agencies are constantly researching the effects that any additive can have on human and environmental health to ensure that they are safe. People concerned about animal byproducts or allergens can check the point of sale information displayed alongside the waxed fruit.

Even though it is possible to develop new waxes from a wide selection of available materials, both synthetic and natural, it is paramount to ensure that the products can fulfill their role; protect food products from deterioration processes, including oxidation, moisture absorption/desorption, chemical reactions, and microbial growth, as well as to improve their physical strength, reduce particle clustering, and possibly improve visual and tactile properties of food product surfaces (Pirozzi et al, 2020)

Why should you prefer natural coatings?

Recently, the study and development of natural coating materials have attracted a lot of attention from researchers. This can be seen in the wide use of Aloe Vera gel and other polysaccharides, or seaweed extracts that have an intrinsic antimicrobial activity, which significantly contributes to longer shelf life. This tendency also extends to the use of natural gums, starches, cellulose, and other compounds recovered from agri-food residues. Glycerol is also being used as a plasticizer, and natural extracts, including essential oils and different plant and fruit extracts, are used as antimicrobial or antioxidant agents.

Among the main advantages gained by using edible coatings are:

  • Reduction in weight loss and an improvement in fruits’ firmness.
  • Reduction in respiration rates and ethylene production, which delay senescence.
  • Prevention of injuries related to chilling and storage.
  • Encapsulation of aroma compounds, antioxidants, and pigments that stop browning reactions.
  • Reduction of the use of packaging material.
  • Improvement of external appearance by providing an extra shine in the surface of the fruit.

However, not all coatings are equal. Food regulations differ in different areas of the world, and the European Union is recognized as one of the most astringent territories in this regard. Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 of the European Parliament on food additives stipulates the several uses for which each food additive, including coatings, can be used.

European Union Food Regulations and the role of natural wax

The European Union recognizes several ingredients that can be safe as fruit coatings; they include Beeswax (E 901), Candelilla wax (E 902), Carnauba wax (E 903), Shellac (E 904), and Microcrystalline wax (E 905). All of them have been tested multiple times as glazing agents and have shown no safety concerns. Furthermore, beeswax, carnauba wax can be used as organic coatings.

Wax coatings can be used in organic produce. In this case, they have to come from a natural source, such as beeswax, wood resins, or carnauba wax; they also have to be certified by a recognized authority in each territory.

By using protective coatings to preserve fruits, it is possible to increase the product’s longevity, increasing the possible days in a gondola by 40% compared with untreated products.

Shel-life® by PolyNatural, your coating alternative

PolyNatural offers Shel-life®, a natural, invisible, washable, tasteless “natural packaging” for each fruit. Their products can be used in pomaceous, citrus, stone fruits, and avocados; and they are developing a natural coating for blueberries, cherries, and kiwis. Their products are already approved to be used in the US with several organic certifications such as OMRI, Ecocert, and NSF.

Shel-life® has been tested several times. In 2018, it performed better than the control in organic apples by reducing the incidence of rot (0.4% vs 2.3%) and dehydration rates (4.7% vs. 4.9%). When tested against conventional apples, Shel-life® demonstrated the same performance as synthetic coatings.

When comparing the performance in nectarines in 2017, Shel-life® proved to be 132% superior in controlling rot incidence than other synthetic waxes while also lowering dehydration rates (2.9% vs. 3.6%).

In preserving plums, Shel-life® proved to perform better than other organic and conventional products both in rotten incidence and dehydration. And when the performance in oranges and easy peelers was tested, Shel-life®’s proved to be equal to synthetic coatings.

Most recently, in 2020, Shel-life® was tested in lemons and avocados and its performance was proved to be better in both cases. In lemons, it provided 75% less dehydration and 50% less incidence of rot; and in avocados, Shel-life® was shown to reduce dehydration rates (9,8% vs. 12%) and to extend shelf life by 20%. 

If you are looking for a natural solution to make food last longer while taking care of it in transport, protecting it from fungal and decay, in that case, Shel-Life can be your solution.