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jueves, 18 de abril 2024
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A package to extend the freshness of cheese

By Universidad de Antioquia

Whey, a byproduct of cheese production, serves as raw material for packaging and containers undergoing pilot-testing as part of a project led by researchers from three academic units at UdeA. This development may also help in the final disposal of this waste, which, due to its high pollution potential, must comply with strict standards.

The professors expect to start the project on a pilot scale in a few months. This is a prerequisite step before advancing it to industrial production. Photo: Communications Office / Alejandra Uribe F.

If the fresh cheese you have in the refrigerator starts to smell bad even before its expiration date, it may not necessarily be spoiled, but no one will probably eat it. This is caused by oxidation, the natural decomposition of food when exposed to elements like oxygen or light. Sometimes, this process is expedited by the containers in which they are stored or the plastic packaging they are sold in.

This problem could soon be resolved thanks to a project led by three researchers from different academic units and a master's student, all from the Universidad de Antioquia. They are making significant progress in developing trays and containers made from whey, the byproduct of cheese production, curds, and other milk derivatives.

Disposing of this liquid waste poses challenges, as it should not be sent to sanitary landfills, discharged into sewers, or dumped in natural environments. Therefore, dairy companies resort to evaporating the water, leaving behind a powder, which is what the UdeA researchers are utilizing for this project. 

It all came up in a conversation that took place in 2021 among friends. Diana Granda, a professor at UdeA’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical and Food Sciences (Cifal), has been working with different materials suitable for biodegradable food packaging for several years. At the time of the conversation, she was working on a project focused on formulating a compound derived from whey that would be useful for her research. 
“Here, we added the research line of agro-industrial waste and explored different compounds to have these function as natural preservatives for food. That is when we started collaborating with different professors,” recalled the researcher from the Food Biotechnology group.

During those days, she had a conversation with Felipe Otálvaro, a professor at UdeA’s Institute of Chemistry of UdeA. He mentioned that he was developing a product with high antioxidant capacity within the Synthesis and Biosynthesis of Natural Metabolites (SIN-BIO-ME-NA) research group. However, he lacked a practical application for it to understand its antioxidant capabilities.

“I have a compound that I want to evaluate. Use it in your containers to see if it is useful,” said Otálvaro about the antioxidant, of which he had just a few micrograms. This opened up a new possibility for Professor Granda, and she accepted the proposal. However, she required four grams of the compound for the project’ scale.

Ricardo Mesías, a PhD candidate in Materials Engineering was also part of the conversation. He develops similar projects using residues from plants and fruit. "My research focus within the Polymeric Materials Group, starting from my master's degree and continuing into my PhD, involves utilizing post-harvest residues from cocoa, coffee, pineapple, plantain, etc. Therefore, during this conversation, I told them that I already had significant experience in this field and had the necessary laboratory equipment to scale up the project to a pilot level,” explained the researcher from the UdeA Faculty of Engineering.

They subsequently decided to apply for a call for proposals from the Committee for the Development of Research (CODI) in 2021 to get resources for their project, and they were successful in their application. They named their project “Development of a biodegradable tray that incorporates the natural antioxidant Lachnanthocarpone as active packaging for dairy foods.”

Basis for the work 

Researchers Diana Granda and Ricardo Mesías during the small-scale assembly of the containers and trays. Photo: Communications Office / Alejandra Uribe F.

The researchers Granda, Otálvaro, and Mesías, along with Pharmaceutical and Food Sciences Master's student Milanyela Ramírez, were initially motivated by their interest in developing environmentally friendly products, as evidenced by their previous projects. Additionally, they were further spurred by the enactment of Law 2232 on single-use plastics in 2022. This legislation aims to promote the adoption of environmentally friendly or recyclable biodegradable packaging and wrappings.

In the case of dairy products, the scientists began to study and test the innocuousness of the packaging and trays. Simultaneously, they sought a product capable of preserving cheese, curds, and liquid and powdered milk without compromising their composition or flavor. Moreover, they aimed to ensure compliance with different regulations concerning whey, a crucial aspect for offering these products to the dairy industry.
“We leveraged the infrastructure and expertise of Professor Ricardo to develop materials from waste, integrating this with resources available at the Food Biotechnology laboratory at Cifal,” said Diana Granda. She pointed out that the materials consisted of cassava starches and proteins derived from whey.

Based on the combination of whey and cassava starch, they initiated testing and developed different prototypes until they honed in on a formulation for two distinct packaging materials: a sheet similar to plastic wrap, and a tray. They added the antioxidant developed by Felipe Otálvaro to these materials.

As mentioned earlier, the testing required four grams of the antioxidant developed by SIN-BIO-ME-NA, attached to the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences. “During basic scientific research, we found a compound that almost doubled the antioxidant capacity of vitamin E. We synthesized it in test tubes, but we had to conduct separate research to obtain the amount Diana said we needed. Hence, I started working on this aspect to scale up the production so that engineers could apply it,” said Otálvaro. 

We obtained whey from a company in Antioquia to produce our containers and trays with different formulations plus the antioxidant. Then we took a commercial fresh cheese of the same brand, divided it into three equal parts, and left one of them in the commercial container. We placed the others on the trays and sheets we created to assess their performance,” explained Professor Granda.

“We were very surprised by the remarkable performance of the antioxidant. the degradation of the cheese in its original packaging with the parts in the new materials we developed, we observed a preservation rate of approximately 60% or more,” noted Mesías.

The test lasted for one month, during which the three blocks of the same cheese were exposed to direct light from a light bulb. They were placed on the same refrigerator rack in the Food Biotechnology laboratory. When uncovered, the cheese in the commercial package had a very strong odor. In contrast, the cheese on the sheet and the tray retained almost the same smell as when the test began.

“We measured volatile compounds, meaning gases, in the laboratory using chromatography, which helps to accurately identify their characteristics. We conducted a study with a Cifal's Sensory Analysis Laboratory sensory panel of people who smelled and ate the cheese. This is how we confirmed the effectiveness of the formulation that included the antioxidant,” Diana Granda specified.

For now, the project has concluded its laboratory research phase and is expected to move on to the pilot stage in the upcoming months. During this phase, larger trays and sheets will be manufactured. This phase precedes industrial production, and aims to contribute a new product to the country's economy and reduce the planet's pollution.

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