Foods are commonly packaged in papers, plastics, rubbers and glass and metal containers. These packages are able to hold the foods for the duration of the shelf life of the foods they contain preventing the entry of foreign materials which will contaminate the foods. But in many places, these packaging materials weren’t so common especially at food vending points until recently; as large leaves have always been used to package foods in these places. Currently, in Ghana, Nigeria, and some other countries, these leaves are still used as food packages. A typical example is the leaf of the katemfe plant also known as the miracle plant, sweet prayer plant or ewe moi-moi, which is used to package waakye in Ghana and used to wrap bean pudding in Nigeria. This leaf is known to possess several benefits.
The katemfe plant is the source of Thaumatin (a non-nutritive sweetener, i.e. a sweetener which delivers little or no calories to the body when consumed), an extremely sweet protein. Thaumatin is known to be about 3000 times sweeter than table sugar. This means if you use a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of a drink, you have to use 1 out of 3000 parts of a teaspoon of thaumatin to get the same degree of sweetness the table sugar gives. Beyond the sweetening ability of the plant, which has caught the attention of the whole world, the leaves of the plant (the main reason for which the plant is cultivated) have been found to contain some medicinal compounds. Unlike plastic and rubber packages which add no medical benefits to the foods they are used to package, katemfe leaves contain compounds of medicinal value which migrate into the foods they are used to wrap, impart a desirable flavour to the food and these compounds could be very beneficial for the health of the consumers of the foods which are wrapped in katemfe leaves.
Further, plastic and rubber packages have been found to release toxic compounds into foods when they come into contact with hot foods. These chemicals that leach into foods from plastic and rubber packages have been proven to be carginogenic (able to cause cancer) and could cause kidney stones too. Another group of compounds are released into foods when katemfe leaves come into contact with foods: flavonoids, saponins and tannins. Flavonoids are chemicals which have hypolipidemic effects (they are able to reduce the amount of fats and cholesterol in the blood), anti-thrombotic effects (they are able to reduce formation of blood clots), anti-viral effects (they are effective against viruses) and vasoprotective effects (they protect the blood vessels). The saponins are also known to inhibit the growth of cancer cells, hence, lowering the risk for cancer in humans. Tannins are chemicals which may have anti-diabetic properties (they may be able to control your blood sugar level).
After safety analysis, katemfe leaves have been shown to be safe for food packaging. Yet, in spite of all the benefits of using the katemfe leaves to package food, there are some concerns about how these leaves are cleaned before using them as food package. For most food vendors who use the katemfe leaves, just a napkin is used to wipe off the dust on the leaves before using them to dish out food to buyers. This method of ‘cleaning’ the leaves leave a lot of room for the proliferation of microorganisms which may contaminate the food and cause food-borne diseases. So there is the need to properly clean these leaves before using them to wrap food items in order to reduce any risk of microbial contamination which may arise as a result of improper cleaning. Washing the leaves with salt solution or water containing some vinegar and drain drying them in a well-sealed, clean container would be an effective way of cleaning the leaves and reducing the risk of microbial contamination before they are used to wrap food.