Encapsulation is a technique initially developed to preserve and disperse colours and flavours in matrices. However, the rise in popularity of functional foods means it is increasingly used to ensure the bioavailability of nutrients in finished products and to hide any unpleasant taste, such as a strong fishy flavour from omega-3.
Various encapsulation approaches exist but they all have one purpose: to put substance into another one, creating a protective barrier that safeguards the properties of the inner filling.
Italian start-up Sphera Encapsulation was recently selected by PepsiCo to take part in the snacks-to-soda manufacturer’s 2021 Greenhouse accelerator programme, an indication of food industry interest in the functional food category, and the growing importance of encapsulation.
Verona-headquartered Sphera says its capsules provide a real barrier between the active ingredient and the harsh external environment of the stomach’s acidic gastric juices and metabolic enzymes, ensuring that brands can deliver on their health claims. Its micro-encapsulated particles have a diameter of between one to 1,000 microns while its nano-encapsulated particles measure less than one micron and are invisible to the naked eye.
Sphera uses biocompatible and biodegradable materials for its encapsulating carrier shells, which are often plant based. According to Martina Vakarelova, joint-CEO at the start-up, such materials is in line with current trends for sustainable products, healthier lifestyles, and a growing consumer awareness of food production methods and how certain ingredients can benefit or harm health.
“We consider the polymers as important as the active ingredient and strive to make our formulations healthy, nutritious, and good for the final consumer. A lot of companies use unhealthy encapsulation materials and therefore, even if the active [ingredient] inside is good for the body, the polymer is not,” Vakarelova told Fi Global Insights.
The company was founded by researchers at the University of Verona in 2016, where it was incubated for the first four years, and had its first major project with a multinational company just one month after beginning operations.
Sphera has two patents under its belt, the first of which describes a method to encapsulate lipophilic compounds such as oils. This patent can transform any oil into an odourless and tasteless water-soluble powder – an important attribute if a brand is looking to add the molecule to a beverage, such as a shake with added fish oil.
Its product, SpherAQ, is based on this patent and, thanks to both the encapsulating polymer and the particle size, the formulation is both fully soluble in water and can be absorbed at a cellular level.
According to the company, SpherAQ is natural, vegan and can help brands clean up their ingredient lists by removing the need for masking agents or excipients in the final product formulation. Client data also suggest it can increase the bioavailability of the active ingredient by more than two-fold, Vakarelova said.
Moving away from plastic
Encapsulation is used in a huge range of industries from pharma to textile, cosmetics to agri-chemicals, and plastic is often the material of choice.
Sphere believes that removing microplastics from the supply chain is one of the most important and pressing areas for innovation faced by the encapsulation sector.
“We do not often think about this, but microplastics are so used in our daily life that it is unbelievable; there is encapsulation in our toothpaste, our detergents, face scrubs, and we eat the microplastics through our vegetables and fruits. When it comes only to the cosmetic industry, 36% of the lipsticks and 38% of the rouges use polyethylene (PE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).”
“Plastic particles have been found to be persistent and ubiquitous pollutants in a variety of environments, including sea water, fresh water, soil, and air. Over the last decade, micro- and nano-plastic pollution has become recognized as a global environmental threat and a possible health hazard to humans,” said Vakarelova.
Sphera uses non-plastic and natural materials for all its polymers, which Vakarelova said was an obvious choice for its food scientist founders.
“What we are trying to do is apply the food-grade polymers we use in nutraceuticals and go to other markets as well in order to replace completely the microplastics or other harmful compounds,” she said.