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Pepper, please – hold the plastic

1.3 billion tons of food are wasted each year. Sufresca’s edible coatings, based on Hebrew University research, slash waste and plastic packaging.

Prof. Amos Nussinovitch, Efrat Boker Ferri  and the team behind Sufresca’s tasteless, odourless, edible coatings that help keep produce fresh, reducing waste (Sufresca)
Prof. Amos Nussinovitch, Efrat Boker Ferri and the team behind Sufresca’s tasteless, odourless, edible coatings that help keep produce fresh, reducing waste (Sufresca)

The idea behind Sufresca began as a friendly bet between two scientists at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Today, it’s a promising Israeli startup with a cheaper, simpler way to cut down on billions of dollars of food waste and help wean the world off plastic packaging.

An estimated 1.3 billion tons of food worldwide are tossed into the garbage each year, making food waste an economic and environmental scourge. Around half of all fresh fruit and vegetables is lost or wasted, much of it damaged in transit or spoiled before purchase.

Amos Nussinovitch, a professor at the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the Hebrew University, was studying edible coatings – that invisible layer of wax or other material applied to produce to extend shelf life and protect it during transport.

“I bet you can’t do peppers,” said a colleague. The vegetable’s high water content means it shrivels quickly and loses nutrients. It has been tough to develop a coating that will adhere to its smooth, shiny surface.

It took several years of research, but Prof. Nussinovitch finally won the bet, coming up with a formula that could protect the highly perishable pepper. Later, he added formulations for other fruits and vegetables. The entire process took 15 years.

His discovery became the basis for Sufresca, a startup nurtured by Yissum, the technology transfer unit of the Hebrew University. The company has raised $4 million since it was founded in 2020, and has secured EU and FDA approvals for its coatings. Its products are undergoing trials in Mexico, and the company plans to bring them to market in 2023.

Global market

“Everyone asks me why we are so professional at certain vegetables that no one else can do, and I tell them it’s because we didn’t start commercially, we started as pure research,” says CEO Efrat Boker Ferri.

Sufresca estimates the global market for edible coatings could be $8 billion by 2026.

If Nussinovitch had been more business oriented, he probably would have started with something simpler than a pepper, but more commercial – an avocado, perhaps, with its bumpy and tough exterior, or citrus, with its enormous export market.
But taking on the toughest challenge ultimately made the company’s work easier.

Edible coatings keep moisture in produce to stop it from shriveling. They also keep out gases in the air that can speed up the ripening process. Sufresca’s coatings are tasteless and odorless, and can extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables by weeks, significantly cutting down on food waste.

Plastic packaging has long been used to help fruit and vegetables retain moisture, but with devastating environmental impact. In Europe, “each cucumber comes plastic wrapped,” Boker Ferri notes. One British study found that plastic packaging actually increases food waste, in part by forcing consumers to buy too much produce.

In January, France banned plastic packaging for 30 fruits and vegetables. As the world’s population grows and crops struggle to keep pace, solutions like Sufresca’s will be needed even more to help reduce food waste, especially in developing countries.

Shelf life

“This technology will be very helpful for countries that don’t have refrigeration, because it extends the shelf life of fruits and vegetables tremendously,” says Dr. Ilya Pittel, vice president of business development in AgTech, FoodTech, Veterinary and Environmental Sciences at Yissum, which helps companies commercialize and license patents developed at the Hebrew University.

“Some countries don’t have refrigerated trucking and all of that logistical infrastructure, so this technology is fantastic,” says Pittel, who serves on Sufresca’s board.

Sufresca’s formulas cost about 1 or 2 cents to coat a kilogram of produce, making it significantly cheaper than competitors’ products. It is applied as a spray that can be easily integrated into existing packing-house supply chains without the need for additional equipment. That gives it an edge over competitors like Apeel, which require companies to purchase special equipment for their edible coatings, which can only be applied by their on-site team.

Sufresca’s products have EU and FDA approval. The company’s current portfolio includes peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, mangos and avocados. Sufresca has developed additional technologies, including a film-type edible coating for bulbs like onions and garlic. Because each vegetable or fruit has a different water content and natural peel or skin, each requires a slightly different formula. Applications for other fruits and vegetables are in the pipeline, Boker Ferri says.

Although Israel’s domestic market has a much shorter food supply chain with little time between harvest and store, the edible coating could be revolutionary for farmers looking to expand into export markets.

“If Israeli peppers exported to Europe can have a week or 10 days more of shelf life, this is a huge difference for reaching the market,” Boker Ferri says.

Sufresca is raising an investment round through OurCrowd, the Jerusalem-based investment platform. For information, click HERE.

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