Imagine “smart” food packaging that changes color to alert you when a food spoils, or “interactive” foods that are personalized to fit your needs. It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but this kind of technology is real thanks to nanotechnology (or, nanotech), which has quietly moved to the forefront of innovation, poised to revolutionize the food industry. In a nutshell, nanotechnology involves manipulating matter at the nanoscale level — much too small for the human eye to see. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter (a single human hair measures 100,000 nanometers wide.)
Our bodies’ cell membranes, hormones and DNA are examples of vital structures that measure in the nanometer range. According to the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Scientific Status Summary, even food molecules such as carbohydrates and protein are the result of naturally occurring nanoscale-level mergers between sugars and amino acids. While some nanoparticles appear naturally, the majority of interest in the field of nanotechnology involves synthesizing nanoparticles and nanomaterials. Today, scientists are taking basic food and food processing components and manipulating them at the nano level to provide specific functions. Nanotech is behind an array of new food benefits — from converting traditional herbal plants into ultrafine powder to better release their active ingredients to developing a new frying oil that doesn’t produce off-odors while frying at high temperatures.
Nanotech in the marketplace
The number of new applications of nanotech in food has grown rapidly, to over 1,000 around the world. Both government and private industry have spent billions of dollars on nanotech research and development, with virtually every major food corporation quietly involved.
One scientist who’s fascinated with the possibilities of nanotech is Rickey Y. Yada, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. He offers a prime example of nanotech: the extension of the shelf life of foods, such as bananas. “It’s frustrating to buy bananas. The first few are fine, but later on they may spoil. Is there a way we can slow down the ripening?” asks Yada. He points out that a nanotech solution is a bag that slows the ripening by absorbing the gas that’s produced naturally by bananas.
So far, there are few actual nanotech foods, but there are food contact products for food packing, storage or cooking, as well as nanotech dietary supplements, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
Certain industries have utilized nanotechnology for some time. If you use light-diffracting cosmetics, transparent sunscreens, deep-penetrating moisturizers, and certain dental adhesives, you are already taking advantage of nanotech. Other uses include stain and odor-repellent fabrics, dirt-repellent coatings, long-lasting paints, and furniture varnishes.
Nanotechnology meets food applications
Food packaging is one area in which nanotech can offer tremendous benefits. For example, silver magnesium oxide or zinc oxide nanoparticles are incorporated into food packages to kill disease-causing microorganisms. Coatings that repel dirt are also being developed for food packages. Soon, nanotech sensors will be added to food packages to detect the slightest trace of chemicals, pathogens and toxins. Another application is the nano bar code, the molecular version of traditional bar codes, which can be used to track foods through the supply chain with better security.
At least one food company is interested in interactive foods derived from nanotech that can be personalized to fit individual preferences. These might be beverages that change flavors or colors, or foods that can adjust for a person’s nutritional needs. The bioavailability of nutrients in foods could also be enhanced by a nanotech delivery system. For example, tiny nanocapsules can carry substances such as antimicrobial compounds, antioxidants, essential oils, flavor compounds, proteins, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals in order to improve their bioavailability and their ability to release these nutrients on demand. This form of nanotech is currently being used for some dietary supplements, such as Lypo-Spheric(TM) Vitamin C, as well as products like Canola Active Oil, a cooking oil that delivers plant sterols to reduce the body’s absorption of cholesterol.
Many experts express concern about the lack of regulation of nanotech in the U.S. and abroad. Products produced through nanotech are not labeled as such, because there is no requirement for labeling — the Food and Drug Administration regulates products, not technologies. And there is no definition or standard of identity for nanomaterials.
“The regulatory standards we develop for nanotechnology should be the standards we use for all new technologies,” suggests Yada. “What we should be working toward is a model that — regardless of the technology — produces a common set of standards so we don’t develop separate sets of regulatory standards for every technology. As consumers, we should be assured it will be safe.”
The bottom line on nanotech? It demonstrates great potential. Right now, the best use appears to be in food packaging. Until more knowledge about the long-term safety of nanotech becomes available, however, it seems only reasonable that nanoparticles should be listed on ingredient labels in order to help consumers make informed decisions.
(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit http://www.environmentalnutrition.com.)
(c) 2010, Belvoir Media Group, LLC. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.