Today, Ohio State University postdoctoral researcher Seung Ran Yoo has cut pieces of whey-based translucent film into a bone-shaped specimen about three inches (7.5 centimeters) long. She attaches it to the clamps on a guillotine-like Instron tensile machine. Once mounted, she pushes a button on her computer, and the Instron slowly stretches the film, continuously measuring the tension force until the film breaks. One downside to whey films is that they are not particularly strong, and she has been working to combine them with sugar-based coatings to make them robusterand more flexible without compromising their oxygen-shielding abilities. These films could be used for heat-sealed packages for sliced vegetables that would dissolve during cooking.
Krochta has published scientific papers on his film's many applications, but they have yet to be widely adopted by any food manufacturers. One of his former graduate students has found a way to keep oil from permeating potatoes during deep-frying. Other research has shown that the films can incorporate antimicrobial compounds to prevent meats from spoiling. One of Krochta's early successes was formulating a whey film that doubled the shelf life of peanuts from four to eight months. "Technology transfer is really difficult," he says, "it's difficult to get people to stop doing what they're doing and get them to look at a new concept." He notes that if manufacturers used his peanut technology, for instance, they would no longer have to seal their peanuts in hard-to-recycle multilayered vacuum packages.
Krochta points out that shellac has other downsides: First off, it is an alcohol-based coating, which puts factories and their workers at risk of fires, explosions and respiratory problems. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been clamping down on candy-makers to reduce their emissions of alcohol vapors. "I think [these regulations] benefit us," he says, "because we have a water-based coating."
Chemist Jorge Bouzas, Hershey's vice president of international research and development, says that the issue with Krochta's film is "you need to have a cost-effective and efficient way to apply it to a confectionary product." In the late 1990s Hershey supported Krochta's research by supplying him with peanuts and other raw materials. Technologies to apply the films, however, were not widely available—and Bouzas says that if there's even a tiny hole in the film, the peanuts will become soggy and go bad.
Today's push into India's chocolate market, which is projected to grow about 12 percent annually over the next five years, may be just what Krochta's shellac replacement needs to take off. "His research could be very relevant for the industry in the future," Bouzas says.
Of course, just because shellac is no longer an ingredient doesn't guarantee that Indian—or any other—chocolate will be insect-free, says forensic entomologist Richard Merritt of Michigan State University who has prepared expert opinions for court cases involving Hershey's.
"People are always ready to sue Hershey's candy bars because they ate a beetle," he says. However, he points out it's probably not Hershey's fault. Insects generally do not make it into chocolate during manufacturing. Instead, they are likely to crawl into a candy bar if it has been sitting on the store shelf for a while.