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Scientists Develop 'Natural' Protection for Stored Foods

Biodegradable polymers infused with herbal extracts could extend product shelf life

TUESDAY, Aug. 21 (HealthDay News) -- Natural methods of preventing food contamination and spoilage could greatly expand the shelf life of products, food scientists at Rutgers University in New Jersey say.

The researchers used natural antimicrobial agents developed from sources such as cloves, oregano, thyme and paprika to create biodegradable polymers or plastics designed to prevent the formation of bacterial biofilms on food surfaces and packaging.

A bacterial biofilm is a slime-like environment that contains infectious, disease-causing bugs such as E. coli and salmonella.

"We mated natural substances with controlled-release, biodegradable polymers that could inhibit or prevent the formation of bacterial biofilms," graduate student Ashley Carbone, who constructed the polymer compounds, said in a prepared statement.

One of the challenges was to make the biodegradable polymers effective against a wide range of bacteria.

"The natural substances we chose have general antimicrobial activities against many different kinds of microorganisms," Kathryn Uhrich, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology and Carbone's adviser, said in a prepared statement. "Therefore, the polymers into which we incorporated these natural substances have the potential to affect a much broader spectrum of microorganisms than organism-specific drugs."

The researchers said these polymers could offer a natural alternative to chemicals used to protect food against contamination and spoilage.

"As they degrade in the presence of water and/or enzymes, they slowly release their active antimicrobials," Carbone explained. "A slow and controlled release of the food-based antimicrobial would offer great advantages in the food industry, providing protection over an extended time and extending the shelf life of the product."

The findings were expected to be presented Wednesday at the American Chemical Society annual meeting in Boston.

More information

The Partnership for Food Safety Education has more about foodborne pathogens.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Rutgers University, news release, Aug. 20, 2007

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