Food scientists and material scientists agree that the primary purpose of food packaging is to protect the food. Once that is accomplished, the package has to protect sensory quality. One challenge to meeting the second goal is communication between food scientists and material scientists, according to research by Susan E. Duncan, professor of food science and technology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech.

It turns out that food scientists and material scientists sometimes use different terminology. “The understanding of basic chemical reactions is there, but there are gaps where the interaction of food and packaging occur from the sensory perspective,” said Duncan.

For example, an adhesive might do an ideal job of keeping a container closed and the food protected, but it might impart an odor that ruins the food product aesthetically.

The problem has economic consequences. “From the consumers’ perspective, if the food doesn’t taste good, they won’t repeat the purchase,” Duncan said.

Recognizing and addressing the problem requires communication through a chain of industries. A manufacturer that produces the materials does not necessarily make the package. It may begin with a polymer pellet with a specific characteristic produced by company A, then purchased by company B to be manufactured into a wrap or bottle or other kind of container, then sold to company C, the food processor.

The consumer buys a product that is part food and part the package, and the food scientist at company C hears complaints like “It tastes bad,” “It smells bad,” or “It tastes sour.”

“We need to figure out – is it just the food or is it an interaction with the material. And that is where the language falls apart. We have to communicate across these organizations,” said Duncan.

“People who manufacture materials rarely have sensory training. They are knowledgeable about chemistry and polymer synthesis. People trained in food science and packaging, usually haven’t received training in polymers. Materials people need an understanding of biological process and sensory information,” Duncan said. “And actually, food scientists who work on food-packaging interactions also need a better understanding of sensory issues.”

The research was presented at the 234th American Chemical Society national meeting. Duncan discussed the use of sensory evaluation methodology and tools in evaluating human response and perception to package-product interaction, with an emphasis on improving communication among materials scientists, packaging manufacturers, and food scientists.

The research was presented at the symposium on Polymer Design of Foods and Nutrition, offered as part of the Division of Polymer Chemistry at the American Chemical Society national meeting for the first time. Timothy Long, professor of chemistry at Virginia Tech, and Duncan organized the day-long session, which featured several presentations from Virginia Tech chemistry, engineering, and food science faculty members and students.

Duncan is part of a Virginia Tech team training Ph.D. students in materials science, engineering, and life sciences to bridge the knowledge gap between macromolecular and life sciences. Long, Duncan, and Craig Thatcher, professor of large animal clinical science with the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, are lead investigators on the Macromolecular Interfaces with Life Sciences (MILES) National Science Foundation-funded Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program at Virginia Tech. MILES uses free radical and oxidation processes as the thematic basis for research and education at the chemistry-biology interface.


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