Contrary to activists who strive to abandon all packaging, I have argued many times that in addition to enhancing the presentation of fruits or vegetables, the right packaging helps producers to reduce post-harvest losses – to get an idea in Brazil, some 30% to 35% of the annual production of fruits and vegetables is discarded.
That certainly is the case with palmitos where a new packaging technology is about to replace the traditional glass container by a box made of cardboard, and probably in the near future by a bio-based packaging.
As the palmito is almost unknown, outside Brazil, where it is a staple, and France, where it is a delicacy in hors d’oeuvres, let’s have a look at this vegetable we are talking about first.
Palm heart, in Brazil called palmito, is a vegetable harvested from the inner core and growing first-year buds of certain palm trees. It is costly because harvesting in the wild kills the tree.
An alternative to palm hearts harvested in the wild, are palm varieties which have undergone a process of adaptation to become a domesticated farm species. The main variety is the Bactris gasipaes, known in Brazil as “palmito pupunha”, and in English as “peach palm”.
As said, the palmito pupunha is basically a staple in Brazil, which production accounts for about 85% of the world, albeit Ecuador is dominating the export. The main cause of the loss of leadership in export is the poor quality of the Brazilian products. Exports have been in order of USD 40 million dollars, but stands today at around USD 7 million annually.
Currently, the Brazilian industry still focuses on the production of palm hearts preserved in brine. Brine is water (nearly) saturated with a salt, usually sodium chloride. Brine is used for pickling foodstuffs, as a means of preserving them (or increasing for taste). However minimally processed palmitos, i.e, ready for fresh consumption without any heat treatment is a viable alternative as the palm heart is the most noble part of the palm, and gives the best when sold fresh or minimally processed.
However, the existent technology is rudimentary and inefficient, making the shelf life of this product very short, with considerable losses in the local market. Consequently, the producers of minimally processed fresh palm hearts are unable to sell to markets far from the production sites, let alone to export markets.
Unlike packing in a glass container using brine, with the new technology, developed by the Instituto Nacional de Tecnologia (National Institute of Technology – INT/MCT) in Rio de Janeiro, in partnership with Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (Embrapa – Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation), the palm hearts are bathed in a filmogenic solution, which creates a coating that protects the food. This coating is edible and does neither change the appearance nor the taste of the product. The film solution was developed based on a natural polymer (gelatine) whose function is to prolong the life of the original cuttings of minimally processed palm hearts to ensure its quality. Sensory tests were conducted with consumers who concluded that there were no significant changes in flavour, texture and appearance of the product.
Furthermore the INT developed a specific packaging for the minimally processed fresh palm hearts, made from ecologically correct biodegradable folding cardboard. The interior is coated with varnish and outside with a plastic film, which should prevent the absorption of moisture. Evidently the INT developed a functional packaging and no designer with an eye for the market was involved. The result is functional albeit a bit dull.
Nevertheless, the application of a edible film coating in combination with an appropriate packaging based on the characteristics of the product extended the shelf life from 5 to 22 days, improved the quality and food safety of the product, opening new possibilities to be marketed in locations distant from the agro-industrial production sites and even exported by air, since the sales value is high, as palmitos are seen as a delicacy.
But this is not the end of the story.
In pursuit of the ideal packaging, which will preserve the food and will have an ecological appeal, not only recyclable, but biodegradable or returnable as well, Embrapa in Rio de Janeiro, in partnership with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and the National Institute of Technology (INT), started a research into new technologies and materials for manufacturing, what they call, “smart packaging” for fruits and vegetables.
Agriculture residue sits at the core of the research. The research will test the feasibility of using the residue of banana trees, papaya trees and the peach palms, which produce large quantities of biomass that could be used for the manufacturing of packaging material. The harvested palmito (palm heart), takes up only a small portion of about 30% of the tree, the rest goes to waste. Acreages of papaya and banana must be renewed regularly and the removed plants serve no goal other than waste.
During the study, the characteristics of the residual fibres will be analyzed which will be the fundamentals of the parameters for the development of packaging material. The second part of the project includes the development of new materials by the Instituto de Macromoléculas da UFRJ (Institute for Macromolecules of Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), and the presentation of prototypes designed by the Division of Industrial Design of the INT.
Antonio Gomes Soares, researcher at Embrapa predicts that within 30 months, the new biomass packages can be tested, and that the technology can be transferred to packaging companies. Since there is no industry involved, competitiveness in the market will be secured.
The interesting outcome of this research will be, that the agriculturalist may also become a supplier of raw material for the packaging industry.
With thanks to Antonio Gomes Soares, researcher at Embrapa, RJ