Her presentation will focus on NanoPack, a research project which aims to develop state-of-the-art antimicrobial packaging solutions for perishable foods based on natural nanomaterials.
Ester Segal earned her B.Sc. (cum laude) in chemical engineering in 1997 from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. Her M.Sc. and Ph.D. in polymer science. After postdoctoral training at the University of California – San Diego, she returned in 2007 to Israel and joined the Department of Biotechnology and Food Engineering at the Technion. There, she leads a research group focusing at the broad interface between nanomaterials science and biotechnology.
Various estimations indicate that approximately one-third of global food production for human consumption is lost or wasted. These losses occur at all stages of the food value chain and across all types of foods. Microbial spoilage caused by bacteria and fungi is one of the major culprits – it reduces the shelf-life of foods and increases the risk of foodborne illness and thus presents a major global concern. As a result, new technologies are sought to provide safer food products and minimize food losses and wastage. Among these is the concept of ‘active packaging’: product packaging designed to control the development of decay and disease and which extends shelf-life of food products.
Active packaging already plays an important role in preventing food spoilage; ethylene absorbers, oxygen absorbers and antimicrobials such as oxidizing ions, are already incorporated into packaging materials. However, they are limited in their ability to control bacteria or molds that lead to diseases and decay. Professor Segal and her team at Technion, are pushing the boundaries by developing antimicrobial plastic packaging with Halloysite nanotubes, serving as “nanocapsules” for essential oils. Halloysite nanotubes are naturally-occurring aluminosilicate clay minerals, consisting of aluminium, silicon and hydrogen. These clays have emerged as promising natural nanomaterials with their potential to serve as nanoscale containers for encapsulation of antimicrobials, which has so far only been investigated on the laboratory scale. NanoPack will explore their suitability for mass-scale industrial food packaging applications. Segal points out that in addition to the scientific and technological challenges of NanoPack, the adoption of nanomaterials in active food packaging materials is still in its infancy and therefore the project takes a holistic approach to address all aspects of risk assessments, environmental implications, regulations and consumer acceptance.
The growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has sparked a renewed interest in the use of natural antimicrobial compounds, such as essential oils. Essential oils have long been used in traditional medicine as antimicrobial agents. However, the volatile nature of these sensitive compounds presents a major challenge in their incorporation into polymers. Professor Segal and her team have successfully managed to encapsulate different active compounds, such as carvacrol which is the active ingredient in oregano essential oil, into halloysite nanotubes. The resulting nanocapsules can be integrated with different polymers to produce plastic films with a prolonged antimicrobial activity while minimizing the negative effects the oil may exert in the polymer properties. For example, the nanotubes are incorporated into polyamide (Nylon 6), a polymer which is widely used for the production of flexible film for packaging of perishable food. Professor Segal and her team have tested polyamide food packaging with carvacrol-loaded halloysite nanotubes on postharvest pathogens of various foods, which resulted in reduced decay development and significantly extended shelf life of these foods.
These advancements have a great potential for the development of active food packaging as another effort to reduce food loss and waste, but it could also lead to changes in how our food is produced. If active product packaging can inhibit food spoilage (to a certain extent), it could provide new opportunities to rethink the use of certain preservatives in food formulations. On the other hand, the continuing emergence, development and spread of pathogenic organisms that are resistant to antimicrobials are a cause of increasing global concern and should stimulate further thinking and research about the use of ‘antimicrobial agents’ in food packaging. The newly developed technology, in which essential oils can be effectively incorporated into plastic films, presents a significant step forward beyond the application for food; think about the possibilities for medicine, personal care and hygiene.