Nanotechnology can make foods tastier, give them a longer shelf life or add more nutrients but worries that it could damage DNA and pose health risks remain.
Imagine a tasteless, odourless drink that, once bombarded with microwaves, could taste like coke, orange juice or ginger beer according to the preference of the customer.
Several years ago, that was an example raised by a company about ‘programmable foods’, to demonstrate the potential that nanotechnology could have for the food industry. These days, the company is largely silent on the issue as nanofoods have become a subject of debate.
Experts from the UAE met recently in the capital to discuss concerns, as well as plans to assess the potential risks and benefits offered by nanotechnology through a nationwide research body. “We will make all efforts to take advantage of new scientific developments in order to strengthen food safety and security situation in the country,” said Ahmed Kulaib Al Taniji, Executive Director, Food Safety and Animal Health Division of Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA). “We will always keep our eyes and ears open to the minutest developments in these fields anywhere in the world.”
anotechnology is the science of manipulating atoms in molecules to give different properties for certain goods. In terms of the consumables industry, the burgeoning field can enable foods to be tastier, have a longer shelf life or contain more nutrients.
Current plans include potato chips that contain less sodium and bread that coated at the molecular level with super-healthy fish oils.
In terms of packaging, scientists are currently working on coatings that can detect changes in gases given off by deteriorating foods and cause colour changes on the label.
In the future, chewing gum that contains all flavours of a three-course dinner — like that in Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — could become a reality through nanotechnology.
Canadian technology watchdog, ETC Group, predicts in its report ‘Down on the Farm’ that nanotechnology will permeate every stage of the retail industry from the production to the sale of foods.
“From soil to supper, nanotechnology will not only change how every step of the food chain operates, but it will also change who is involved,” the report says.
“At stake is the world’s $3 trillion food retail market, agricultural export markets valued at $544 billion, the livelihoods of 2.6 billion farming people, and the wellbeing of the rest of us who depend upon farmers for our daily bread.”
Nanotechnology is a field of micro-science envisioned by physicist Richard Feynman in the 1960s. It works in nanometers (nms), which are one billionth of a metre.
While a red blood cell is around 7,000nms in diameter and a human hair is 80,000nms wide, the scale most scientists now work on is between 0.1-100nms.
The revolution has had an impact on every area of society, from construction to medicine. Scientists are now developing carbon nano-fibres which are around 100 times stronger than steel and eight times lighter.
In medicine, pharmacologists envision a time where drugs can be delivered in ‘nano-capsules’ which only break open upon contact with certain types of cells — for instance like cancer cells.
Dr. Anne Mackenzie of ADFCA said that funding was necessary to research the full benefits of the burgeoning field of science. “Nano-devices and materials for enhanced gene insertion and gene therapy in veterinary medicine can bring out a quantum leap in our efforts at improving animal health,” she told the seminar, held recently.
“Implementable self-regulatory drug delivery systems can tackle diseases even before the symptoms appear. But all these call for improved funding from governments across the world to realise the true potential of this new scientific direction,” she added.
However, there are serious concerns about the health risks of the new technology, particularly when applied to the food industry. In January, a science committee of the British House of Lords issued a lengthy study on nanotechnology and food. It found that despite the field not having undergone formal testing and approval, nano products were already appearing in the UK in salad dressings, sauces, diet beverages, and pancake mixes.
Among them was a non-stick nano-coated tomato ketchup bottle that would ensure that none of the sauce got stuck in the bottle.
The study found that there were “severe shortfalls” in research into the dangers of nanotechnology in food.
Further information was needed into the behavior of nano-particles in the digestive system, and the industry needed to be more closely regulated, the study said. Last year, biologist Bénédicte Trouiller discovered some disturbing results from experiments on lab mice at the UCLA’s School of Public Health in Los Angeles.
She discovered that nano-titanium dioxide, the most common nanomaterial used in consumer products today, was fundamentally damaging the DNA of the animals. In a joint statement following the recent seminar in Abu Dhabi, experts called for a strengthening of the research surrounding nanofoods.
“What is needed is an umbrella body comprising representatives of all regulatory bodies in the country and major research organisations to delve deep into the implications of nanotechnology in various fields, such as food, agriculture and medicine,” the statement said. “While nanotechnology offers many advantages and benefits, it may also pose several risks. Being a new field of enquiry, its implications have not been confirmed fully till now.”