It may soon be possible to eat 60-day-old bread.
The fear of green fuzzy splotches making baked goods unfit to eat within days of purchase may soon be relieved.
MicroZap, a company based in Texas, has developed a method to keep bread mold-free for 60 days. That's about six times longer than the shelf-life of regular packaged bread.
"We probably could have gone farther, we just didn't try it," CEO Don Stull told Business Insider.
Either way, a longer lifespan helps cut down on food waste, while encouraging manufacturers to get rid of preservatives.
MicroZap's units work like a standard home microwave by bombarding food with microwaves. Only in this case, the high-energy particles are created to sterilize food, instead of cooking or heating the product.
The bread is placed inside a chamber that looks like a long, square tube with an 18-inch wide conveyor belt. The product is then blasted with microwaves for 10 seconds, which the company claims keep mold spores from forming for 60 days, increasing the bread's shelf life.
The bread is placed on a conveyer belt and zapped for 10 seconds to kill the mold spores.
The key to MicroZap's technology is the even distribution of energy inside of the unit. It doesn't have the same hot or cold spot problem common that conventional microwaves do, Stull said.
Bread treated in a kitchen microwave might kill spores on one edge of the product, but MicroZap's special chamber radiates uniform electrical signals so that the mold or pathogen is eliminated all the way through.
The unique zapping process doesn't stop at bread mold. It has also been used to kill salmonella, without disrupting freshness, in peanuts, ground turkey, jalapenos and pet food. The technology has even been adapted for washers and dyers to treat hospital linens and towels that might be infested with a dangerous superbug known as MRSA.
"We don't care what the pathogen is, we want to take a look at it and see if we can help that company with our technology," said Stull.
MicroZap, formed in 2008, received $1.5 million from Texas' Emerging Technology Fund in 2010 to work on its technique, which originally focused on getting rid of salmonella in egg shells. Mindy Bashears, a professor and director of the university's International Center for Food Industry Excellence, played a key role in development.
The company is currently looking to partner with a bread manufacturer to place the MicroZap machine in their facility in a pilot production trial.
An in-home unit with a sterilization cycle for fresh produce is also on the drawing board, said Stull.
A longer shelf-life
The product would help both consumers and companies, by lengthening the shelf life of foods. Each year, 1.3 billion tons of food — more than one-third of all food produced on the planet — goes to waste, in part, because of spoilage.
Bread does not account for all of that discarded mass, but it certainly adds to the pile. The U.S. commercial baking industry hauls in approximately $30 billion in revenue each year, and fresh bread is a large chunk of that business. According to estimates from Nielson Co., in 2010, Americans bought close to 3 billion packages of the sandwich essential.
Bread, like many processed foods, is a desirable breeding ground for mold because of its high moisture content, which attracts dry mold spores floating in the air. The spores get on the bread either before packaging or once you open the bag. Once the mold spores land on the surface of bread, they are provided with all the nutrients that encourage growth — at which point you start to see a coat of green fur.
Unrefrigerated packaged bread typically lasts for one week . Fresh bakery bread without preservatives has an even shorter lifespan. So if you don't have time to plow through an entire loaf of bread in seven days, this can all add up to a lot of food waste.
Mold spoilage isn't only a nuisance for individual consumers; it's also a costly problem for bakery manufacturers, contributing to around 200 million pounds of lost product each year, according to a study published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutical & Biological Archives.
Commercial manufactures use preservatives to combat mold spoilage, but it's still a major shelf-life limiting factor. MicroZap's technology gives major bread producers the gift of time. One UK processor told Stull that just four days would can change the way they distribute product and eliminate a lot of waste — not to mention the need for preservatives and the cocktail of additives used to mask the unpleasant taste of those preservatives.
"The best part of this technology is that consumers can now go out and buy an all-natural, preservative-free sandwich bread. That's the product I'm looking for," said Stulll.
Passing the taste test
In the lab, a treated piece of bread had the same mold content after 60 days as a piece of fresh bread out of the package. Of course, that doesn't mean much if people refuse to buy or eat it. But MicroZap says their treated bread passed the ultimate taste test. Consumers found no discernible difference between 60-day bread and fresh bread out of the package in a sensory panel, said Stull.
MicroZap's microwave chamber.
Scientifically, the 60-day bread had less moisture than the younger bread, but that was not detected by consumers.
And don't forget, treated bread is still bread.
If you remove it from the package, it will dry up like regular bread whether or not it has been zapped. When exposed to air, it will also collect living mold spores, which could still reproduce.
"Once you open the package, then any mold in the air could get back into it," Stull said. "We're not eliminating everything in the environment."
And, there's still the question of whether consumers can cozy up to the idea of eating 60-day-old bread. But Stull thinks that skepticism will fade once see they see the true benefits.
"They might be a little weary in the beginning," Stull admitted. "The better product for a bakery would be to keep a similar shelf-life, but to remove all the preservatives so they have a natural bread. That may be more acceptable to consumers."
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