“Best before”-labels have been around for ages but do they really tell you how fresh your food is? Solveiga Pakstaite, a 23-year-old industrial designer, didn’t think so. She developed a bioactive label that features tactile information – bumps – that tell shoppers whether their food has perished. She used gelatin that is smooth in the beginning but develops bumps when the food is no longer safe to eat. The label can be used for meat, dairy, fish or fruit products. The invention won her the UK round of the prestigious James Dyson award. The benefits: Pakstaite will receive funding to help her develop her prototype and test it in lab conditions. We spoke with her about her invention and her plans for the future.
What sparked the idea to develop the bump mark label?
I initially wanted to create a solution that would enable visually impaired individuals to access expiry information about their food, but this also led me to realize that the system that we use currently isn’t working for sighted people either, simply by looking at the fact of how much food we waste. This is why I became obsessed with the idea of having a texture change when the food actually goes off.
Why is it important?
Having a solution such as this one is important because expiry information has stayed the same since the 1970s when it was first introduced. It seems a little crazy to me that as the rest of the information around us gets smarter and smarter, information about the quality of the food that we are putting into our bodies is static and does not respond to environmental conditions. People will always put their wellbeing first, so it is not surprising that we would rather waste food than risk illness. Something has to give.
How did you come up with the idea to use gelatin? Did you experiment with other materials?
I was searching for a food material that changes its properties significantly when it expires, so when I discovered that gelatin releases its bonds and turns back into a liquid when it goes bad, it was perfect. I was very fortunate to be able to use the expertise of a chemistry expert to find this material very early on in my design process.
What kind of printer did you use for the label?
I did explore using gelatin ink in an exotic materials printer for manufacturing the labels, but as the technology stands, it is too slow and expensive to be viable. This is why the gelatin is traditionally set, layered over a vacuum-formed plastic sheet, and all sealed in a plastic film using heat.
Have you contacted label manufacturers with your ideas – or have they contacted you? What was their reaction?
I have had an overwhelming response from various types of companies contacting me about this concept, and some of them have been label makers. I am going to be running a retail trial of the label with a large UK retailer in the near future so that will provide great feedback about what needs to be done to commercialize the invention.
What kind of uses (other than in food packaging) do you foresee for your invention?
Because Bump Mark is a natural biological timer, effectively, it can be applied to anything perishable so there are lots of applications outside the food sector that would be suitable. Examples include animal feed, organ transportation, and maybe even fresh natural beauty products.
You have been awarded the James Dyson award. What does it mean to you?
Winning the award is such an honor! I never expected it because it was always such an experimental project. I think that university is a great place to push boundaries and I saw my Major Project as an opportunity to pursue something really crazy and not have to deal with the financial consequences of it going totally wrong. I had nothing to lose, and I would encourage other students to really use their time in education to stretch their imaginations, and not to just see it as ‘box-ticking’.
What are your projects and goals for the future?
My main priority at the moment is to find the right commercial partner for Bump Mark and it’s keeping me very busy but in the future I would love to work with a company that is passionate about user-centered design and ethnography because I feel that unless you know everything about the person you are designing for, how on earth can you make something useful for them?
Thank you very much for the interview.