Brunel students have won the prestigious UK James Dyson award for the last two years running now, and this year it was the turn of Solveiga Pakštaitė to accept the prestigious award. Her brainchild is a food labelling system which could replace best before dates on perishable foods across the UK. Although she refused to divulge who, she revealed to Le Nurb that she will be undertaking a retail trial with a large UK supermarket in the coming weeks. If all goes well, laboratory testing can commence to fully develop the idea, which is currently the subject of a pending patent application.
Best before dates on food products are often misleading and are part of the problem which leads to 7 million tonnes of avoidable food waste in UK households alone (around the weight of 17,500 fully loaded Boeing 747s!). All of this waste comes in at cost of approximately £700 per year on average for every household in the UK although studies suggest more than half of that food is still perfectly edible. So how is Solveiga’s solution going to solve the problem? Her answer is a bio-reactive label, which starts off feeling smooth, but decays along with the food it contains and begins to feel bumpy. Given that the UN recently warned that the earth will need to produce 60% more food by 2050 to support the swelling population, there is plenty of motivation to cut down on the mountains of unused food we currently buy and throw away.
The label uses gelatine; a cheap and readily available substance which can be adapted to match the expiry of the food decay period. If the label is smooth the food is still edible, if the label has softened so you feel a bump, then the food should not be eaten. In a statement she explained: "Why gelatine? Because it is a protein, so it decays at the same rate as protein-based foods like pork, milk and cheese. And the gelatine can be adapted to match the expiry period of the food by altering the concentration. So, the higher the concentration, the longer the gel will stay solid. The label simply copies what the food in the package is doing, so the expiry information is going to be far more accurate than a printed date".
Solveiga started her project with a different aim, she explained to me: “I initially wanted to create a solution which would enable visually impaired individuals able to access expiry information about their food. However, this also led me to realise that the system that we use currently isn’t working for sighted people either. This is why I became obsessed with the idea of having a texture change when the food actually goes off. Having a solution such as this one is important because expiry information has stayed the same since the 1970's, which is when they were first introduced. It seems a little crazy to me that as the rest of the information around us gets smarter and smarter, information about the quality of the food that we are putting into our bodies is static and does not respond to environmental conditions”.
Her idea has been the feature of articles in The Guardian, The Daily Mail, BBC News, The Telegraph and WIRED. Since the invention is still only under development, more attention is likely to follow; particularly if the supermarket trial is successful. But we could all be seeing Solveiga’s invention in our fridges and kitchen cupboards at home soon.