NEW YORK – You’ve just finished the sandwich you packed for lunch, but instead of crumpling up the wrapping and tossing it in the trash you do something that might seem a little odd to an onlooker.
You eat it.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is developing edible food wrap and expects it to hit grocery store shelves by the fall.
The purpose, say researchers, is to get people to eat more fruits and vegetables — five servings a day is the recommended amount — and help farmers use more of what they grow.
"Studies have shown the average American consumes only half the amount of recommended fruits and vegetables each day," said Tara McHugh, the project’s research leader at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. "We’re trying to help people meet those recommendations."
That's not an easy feat in a fast-food-saturated society, but the government has good reason to believe it's necessary. Obesity is fast becoming the number one cause of preventable disease in the U.S., according to McHugh. And treating disease costs money.
"There are many reasons why we need to consume more fruits and vegetables," she said. "The products we’re developing are healthful and convenient."
The wraps, which resemble a less sweet and sticky version of a fruit-rollup snack, are made from 100 percent fruit or vegetable puree.
In the development phase, researchers have created the edible films in apple, strawberry, peach, pear, mango and grape, as well as tomato, broccoli, carrot, corn and red bell pepper. McHugh doesn't know which of those flavors will ultimately be available on the market.
"We can make the films from almost any fruit or vegetable," she said. Currently, government researchers are focusing on the peach, tomato and broccoli varieties and working with a company called Aquafilm to produce and market the wraps for sale.
In its current form, the film doesn't cling tightly to the container or food it’s covering. McHugh admitted that certain aspects of the product need to be perfected — including the adhesive, which can be improved by adding more sugars, she said.
But there are some things the edible film just won’t be as good at as its friends Saran and Glad.
"It’s never going to be as waterproof as a plastic film," she said.
McHugh envisions the wrap being sold in a roll, like plastic wrap; as a secondary wrap for food that has an outer packaging; or as a snack on its own.
So, a consumer could use the tomato wrap to cover a bowl of leftover pasta and then reheat the whole thing together for a pasta topped with tomato sauce or dried tomato flakes. A package of pork chops with an apple wrap around each one could wind up being pork chops with apple glaze when cooked.
"I love the idea that it would minimize waste. You don’t have to throw it away — you can eat it," said Liz Haas, 32, a merchandise planner from New York. "We have too much of a disposable society. I like that it would serve a dual purpose."
The edible food covering will cost more than ordinary Saran wrap, McHugh said, but its price tag is as yet undetermined.
"We’re hopeful that the nutritious benefits and the edible aspect will make consumers willing to pay for them," she said.
Some say they would be.
"It’s such an original, unusual idea that it will probably take some getting used to," said Haas. "But if it tastes good and it’s good for you, I'd be willing to wrap my sandwiches in it and eat it."
For others, the edible film might be a harder sell.
"It’s not something I would buy," said Cristina Barden of Long Island, N.Y. "I can’t go there right now. The thought is grossing me out."