Despite the "yuck" factor, this development is an indication of how rapidly packaging, and therefore packaging design, is changing, and the adjustments in thinking it will require. It is also a raised flag to indicate that brand communication, which has been moving away from the purely visual for a long time now, is moving even farther in the direction of including all five senses.
It's all over the Internet: EDIBLE PACKAGING IS HERE TO SAVE THE EARTH! Here are a few of the many headlines:
And so on . . .
To be honest my first thought when I saw these headlines was, “Yuck, I don’t want to eat packaging, no matter how sustainable or ecological it may be, or how good it may taste.”
After all, one major function of packaging is to protect food and keep it clean from all the dirt from shipping and all the germs from the many hands that touch it along the way.
This packaging film is made from a milk protein called casein*, with some glycerol added to make it more flexible and citrus pectin – known for its cancer preventing properties – which allows it to better resist humidity and high temperatures. It is up to 500 times better at keeping oxygen away from food, it is biodegradable, and it is edible. It is virtually tasteless, though flavoring and vitamins can be added.
First, what I want to be clear about is that these social-media-ready, attention-grabbing "EDIBLE" headlines, may be doing the cause more harm than good, because this initial yuck factor may immediately turn people away from even considering the benefits of this development, and may put off designers considering the design possibilities.
*Many wightlifters and athletes will be familiar with casein protein drinks.
Some of the articles do address the question of whether or not customers are ready to make the mental shift to eating food wrappers, and none mention how this might add to the experience of the product, positively or negatively. But that is missing the point, because all it takes is just a few more minutes of consideration and and reading to see:
Edible six-pack holders.
Edble cups from a similar material are now on the market.
One of the more sensible headlines was "Milk, Not Plastic, Will Protect Food in the Future". Less attention grabbing, but more responsible, more to the point, and more in line with how designers need to see this development.
Individually wrapped cheeses.
What is important for designers is to be flexible and curious enough to see through the attention-grabbing headlines, research the many positive possibilities other than the packaging being edible and start considering how they may design for and with this new material:
Packaging that dissolves in boiling water, deducting plastic waste.
It is wonderfully suited to single-serve, edible food wrappers, soup mixes, oatmeal and so on, that can simply be tossed into boiling water and all the pre-measured ingredients are released in their proper proportions.
Casein coating on cereal flakes instead of sugar, will keep them crispy in milk, and add protein.
KFC's experiment with an edible espresso cup.
What is important for companies: Because packaging is a major part in forming a brand’s (hopefully) lasting relationship with customers, designers are more and more considering elements other than just the visual details of shape, color, logo, and so on. More and more the conainters’ materials, reusability, secondary purposes, recyclability, higher purposes, and the experiences each of these create for the consumer are becoming key elements in brand communication.
Edible water bottles.
The Point: Food producers and designers should not focus on, nor be turned off by, the "edibility" of new packaging materials. Instead, focus on their many many other possibilities, most notably its biodegradability, and what having biodegradable packaging can communicate about your brand. Then begin to dream of how you would design for these new types of materials.
Not a new idea at all. "Edible paper," Michael Keeton in the 1982 film “Night Shift”. Well now it is here and going mainstream. But its edibility is not its most important feature.
Food producers and designers should not focus on the edibility of the packaging, but its many many other possibilities, most notably its biodegradability, and what having biodegradable packaging can communicate about your brand.