Sustainable packaging innovator Xampla, a University of Cambridge spin-out, was this year named one of the world’s most promising global cleantech companies in the annual Cleantech 100 rankings. Describing itself as an expert in ‘drop-in, high-performance natural materials’, it is working with global brands to deliver breakthrough new product developments and plastic-free replacements.
Using patented technology which structures plant proteins – typically pea – and other sustainable feedstocks into functional materials it has developed a range of new product innovations for the food and beverage industry.
These innovations aim to tackle two pressing but distinct challenges: 1) plastic pollution, and 2) the need to protect the bioavailability of important ingredients in food and drink products, such as vitamins and nutrients.
The ‘world’s first’ edible packaging
For example, to reduce plastic pollution, the company has created 100% plant-based, vegan and gluten-free edible flexible films that function as a natural plastic free alternative for single-use plastics. Working with meal kit company Gousto, Xampla subsequently brought to market the world’s first edible stock cube wrapper to replace single-use plastic sachets, which enabled customers to eat their product – packaging and all.
Next, fulfilling an entirely different function, Xampla’s plant-based microcapsules have been created to provide improved nutrient stability for brands who are seeking to fortify beverages with additional vitamins and other actives. Thanks to this innovation, in collaboration with global beverage manufacturer Britvic, Xampla developed microcapsules to encapsulate vitamin D in fortified drinks and protect degradation of vitamins during the storage and transit process.
“We know that despite their polluting nature, single-use plastics are an unavoidable part of everyday life,” said Stanley Mitchell, Head of Business Development at Xampla. “Plastic packaging keeps food fresher for longer and facilitates single-use portions to prevent food waste.”
But consumers and brands want innovative new materials that will fulfil the convenient functions of single-use plastic films, without the pollution. Recycling is part of the picture, but still isn’t working and is thus far from a silver bullet. “The plastics crisis is huge, and we are going to need more than one solution to solve it,” said Mitchell. “Only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled. Replacing plastic with truly sustainable solutions is fundamental if we are to phase out the most polluting plastics once and for all. It is these polymers and applications – hidden plastics in home cleaning products, for example, and unrecyclable plastic films – that Xampla targets.”
With incoming regulation also increasingly phasing out single-use plastics and microplastics, brands and manufacturers want to be ‘futureproofed with a diverse portfolio of alternatives’, according to the business development head. Xampla’s breakthrough flexible films provides the solution that industry and consumers have been searching for, he told us.
If Gousto were to roll out Xampla’s edible stock cube wrapper at scale across all meal kits it would have the potential to replace 15.6 tonnes of plastic annually, he estimated. “Our edible and soluble film applications have the power to dramatically reduce plastic waste across the world. Each year, 855bn plastic sachets are thrown away – which is enough to cover the entire surface of the earth,” he told us.
“Unable to be economically recycled, the majority of these sachets end up as pollution in the environment. Xampla’s mission is to replace these polluting plastics with our natural solution.”
Using Xampla’s vegan and gluten-free film to wrap a stock cube, customers were able to dissolve the stock cube, including the outer packaging, in hot water before using it in the recipe. The never-before-seen packaging experience was a huge success with customers and sold out in under an hour, Xampla claims.
“Our trial with Gousto was a huge success with customers, receiving an average review of 4.4/5 stars and 16/17 ‘thumbs up’ from Gousto customers. The stock cube wrapper was easy to use and did not affect the taste or texture of the final dish. The results showed that Xampla’s plastic free replacement survives well in transit and storage, further validating the potential of the material at scale. Customers are really excited by the potential of edible films and this unique material also provides a fantastic opportunity for brands to differentiate their products on shelf.”
The stock cube wrapper did have a shorter shelf-life compared with a standard one though. Might such sacrifices be typical as we replace polluting plastics with the sustainable alternatives? “Traditional plastic is a brilliant material with unique barrier properties,” responded Mitchell. “It is also nearly indestructible – but not everything needs this level of protection. Natural materials are currently being developed to try and replicate these properties, which means there is likely to be some level of compromise. With most food products that are intended to be consumed in a short period of time, it doesn’t need to be packaged in materials that last for years and years, just a few days or weeks.”
To ensure compatibility of the film with the product and ingredients inside, Xampla’s highly trained team work closely with brand partners to understand their requirements and ensure our materials offer the level of protection required. “This means we can guarantee a shelf life and barrier protection that is suitable for the food product. For example, our edible packaging with Gousto was a zero-waste solution that had no impact on taste or cost. However, there was a compromise on shelf life when compared to supermarket stock cubes but due to Gousto’s products being intended for consumption within a much shorter period of time this was not an issue.”
The importance of protecting food and drink fortification via microcapsule technology
In parallel to the war on plastic use and waste, as significant numbers of consumers remain more health-conscious brands are seeking to provide additional health benefits to their products. Functional wellness drinks are now worth £240.2 million, totalling 2.7% of the soft drinks market, Britvic estimated in 2021. Unilever has also identified food fortification as growing trend. Food and drink fortification has an important role to play to address widespread deficiencies across lots of nutrients. However, some categories are challenging to fortify as nutrients, such as Vitamin D, are degraded by UV light, low pH and pasteurisation. In addition, ensuring the nutrients are bioavailable to the consumer can also be a challenge where there is a risk of leakage into the environment.
As illustrated by its Britvic tie-up, Xampla has consequently developed a solution for brands to deliver new product developments that offer additional health and nutrition value to consumers.
“FMCG companies are constantly innovating to try and provide consumers with new functional benefits,” Mitchell told us. “Often this involves the addition of vitamins, such as vitamin D, or botanical actives which are easily damaged by light and pasteurisation. To overcome this, brands either have to put extra vitamins in their product or they simply don’t add any at all. In addition, clear plastic bottles that consumers consider positive – with Britvic’s research showing that people are 40% are more likely to recycle clear bottles over coloured ones – let in more UV light, leading to the degradation of Vitamin D.”
Xampla’s plant-based microcapsules offer a new solution to this problem. “Using plant protein microcapsule technology, we can wrap a microscopic droplet of vitamin oil in pea protein so that the droplets are protected within the liquid itself,” Mitchell explained. “This enables beverage brands to fortify drinks with additional nutrients and vitamins without the risk of degradation during transit and storage.”
This presents an exciting opportunity for brands to package any oil-based vitamin or active, including Vitamins A, D, E or K, in their product range. “Gluten-free, vegan, and EFSA certified; Xampla’s microcapsules are also enterically released – therefore digested in the intestine, releasing the nutrient where it can be absorbed. This results in additional health benefits being delivered to consumers in their most effective form,” revealed Mitchell.
“By encapsulating nutrients in our plant-protein microcapsule technology we can ensure the protection of these valuable ingredients in manufacturing processes and throughout its journey in the human body. Our cutting-edge technology enables vitamins to be delivered to the intestine where it is absorbed into the body in the most effective way.”
Mitchell stressed the vitamin microcapsules fit seamlessly with existing industry manufacturing processes. “To be credible and trusted, a brand needs to be certain that the nutrient they are adding survives the entire process from manufacturing right through to consumption, and be sure the product stands up to the health and nutrition claims being communicated on pack.”
The success of its launches with Gousto and Britvic has attracted the attention of other industry partners, according to Mitchell, and the company is now working on a range of new products for FMCG brands and packaging manufacturers. This includes developing the use of its next-generation material as a replacement for current petrochemical-based materials in coatings for packaging applications.
“Our natural performance materials can be used to produce functional materials with highly controlled properties, such as excellent grease and oxygen barrier properties. This means our coatings can be applied to a variety of substrates and tailored for use with a range of goods to deliver a sustainable packaging solution.”
Price parity with traditional plastic is key
The key challenge identified ‘from day one’ by Xampla in bringing its solutions to scale is developing novel solutions that drops in with existing machinery. “When bringing any new material to market, the capital already invested into supply chain machinery is a significant consideration,” Mitchell explained. “For our material to be used at scale, it must seamlessly replace plastic to remove any of the cost or logistics barriers that brands and manufacturers could face. To overcome this, we have used years of research and development to understand the unique properties our material must possess to fit with existing manufacturing processes.
“As companies increasingly face rising costs, it’s important that our customers don’t have to adapt or change their machines. This doesn’t just keep costs down, it provides a faster route for replacing the world’s most polluting plastics.”
While significant numbers of shoppers say they are willing to pay more for a product they believe to be sustainable (over 40%, according to What Matters to Today’s Consumer 2023 Capgemini Research Institute) Xampla says it is also working with its customers to ensure performance and price parity with traditional plastic, meaning there is no extra cost passed on, as was the case with the Gousto trial.
The company also says its consumer research shows increasing demand for sustainable packaging. Some 69% of the public say sustainable plastic alternatives are a better solution to plastic pollution than recycling. A further 87% believe that businesses have a responsibility to transition away from conventional plastic to use more sustainable alternatives.
In addition to this appetite for sustainable alternatives, Xampla’s consumers’ insights have also found a demand for additional health benefits in food and drink products. Recent polling commissioned by the company revealed that a third of consumers choose drinks containing vitamins, over those that do not. Nearly half agreed that vitamins were more effective when absorbed through food and drink than in supplements.
Specific groups were found to be more concerned with health and wellbeing, for example, half of 18-35 year olds said they did not get enough Vitamin D in their diets, as opposed to just 25% of 65 year olds.
Governments around the world are also “quite rightly” banning more and more single-use plastics applications all the time, and are introducing new taxes and extended producer responsibility models. All of these are drivers towards making plastic yesterday’s material, observed Mitchell.
“In that light industry needs to get ahead by investing now in natural replacements for plastic, and ours is the one that can drop-into existing manufacturing processes and offer performance parity.”