One hundred years ago, if you wanted the best paint for your house you bought lead paint.
Eighty years ago if you wanted to insulate your boiler, the best technology was asbestos.
Today, if you want to produce the healthiest, tastiest, safest, longest-lasting food, you can use nanotechnology.
I’m sure you can see where we’re going with this.
Nanotechnology—the science of dealing with matter on a miniscule, or molecular, scale—is, in a somewhat ironic twist, becoming a bigger industry.
In fact, a British parliamentary report says that the global market for nanotechnology is expected to be $5.6 billion by 2012—an increase of $5.46 billion over 2006.
In the U.S., this year the government allocated $1.6 billion to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which will be devoted, in part, to manipulating foods on a nano scale, to make them healthier, taste better and safer.
On top of that, the USDA has announced that it plans to use nanotechnology to improve food safety, Americans' health and bioactives in functional foods.
But we’re probably consuming and coming into contact with more nanotechnology than we think we are. It’s already used widely in diet and sports drinks (i.e. to encapsulate vitamins and minerals and also to aid metabolism), nutraceuticals and non-foods (e.g. shoe liners, coffee makers, drugs, cosmetics, water purifiers).
In foods, nanotechnology is largely being used, to date, to make them more functional—encapsulating nutraceuticals and eliminating harmful fats—and to make them safer—sprays containing antimicrobials can be used to coat foods to extend their shelf-life, for example
There are also new uses for nanotechnology in food on the horizon. David Julian McClements, professor in the department of food science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is working to coat the butyric acid in milk, to turn it into a colon cancer-fighting compound.
As it is, the body absorbs this acid, which occurs naturally in milk, before it reaches the colon. McClements' changes would mean it could travel intact to the colon, where it would help fight the disease.
And Britain's Institute of Food Research has found a way to break down fat using nanotechnology that might lead to new ways of slowing digestion, and ultimately to creating foods that make consumers feel fuller, helping millions of obese and overweight people around the world.
Nanotechnology is being used in packaging, too. Nano clay materials have been placed between the two layers of a Miller Light bottle to prevent the ultra violet rays from getting into the beer and spoiling the hops. Nano clays can also help keep carbon dioxide in the bottle (and for plastic juice bottles can keep the oxygen out).
Nano packaging can also keep food safer. For example, oxygen sensors composed of ink that contains nano-particles of titanium dioxide can be incorporated into packaging. These nano-particles become sensitive to oxygen levels once they are exposed to UV, and then change color, indicating that the product has been exposed to oxygen and may be—or is—spoiled.
Soon we’ll see fresh food such as broccoli wrapped in a nano saran wrap that prevents oxidation from taking place so the shelf-life of the vegetable extends from three to four days to three to four weeks.
And the foods themselves are starting to be affected in many steps of the food cycle as nanotechnology is being used on plants, in processing, packaging and storage.
It all sounds very futuristic and good for us, doesn’t it? So did lead paint and asbestos, remember.
Jaydee Hanson is senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety. Nanotechnology could be the best thing since sliced (unsprayed and uncoated) bread, he said, but he’s not convinced.
“We are concerned about [nanotechnology] because it’s untested and unregulated. We’ve been working with the FDA and the environmental protection agency (EPA) to try to get them to regulate nanotechnology in food.”
One nano product that’s getting food manufacturers excited is nano titanium dioxide. Companies are proposing that it be sprayed on bread to make it stay fresh longer.
“Bulk scale nano titanium dioxide is already an approved food substance but the nature of nano titanium dioxide changes on a nano scale,” Mr. Hanson explained.
When it becomes that small, it can enter the bloodstream and the body’s cells. In testing on mice (a grand total of two tests so far) researchers found it changed the DNA in the first generation and caused cancer in the second generation.
But where we’re most likely to see nanotechnology used soon, said Mr. Hanson, is as an anti-microbial. Nano silver is a strong anti-microbial and companies are trying to incorporate it into foods, packaging and even the inside walls of refrigerators to make food stay fresh for longer.
“That’s the good news,” said Mr. Hanson. “The bad news is that it kills the good along with the bad.” And the good it might kill, he explained, is the good flora in our intestines, but no one knows for sure yet because the testing hasn’t been done.
Mr. Hanson added that in fact nanotechnology is contrary to organic principles, and the latter are the current vogue. Organic is natural; nanotechnology brings us engineered synthetic products. So it almost goes against the grain to use nanotechnology, despite the possible advantages.
Kantha Shelke, a principle at Corvus Blue, a Chicago, IL-based food science and nutrition research firm and a spokesperson for the institute of Food Technologists, has similar reservations to Mr. Hanson.
“Nanotechnology is already being used in the supplements sector,” she said. “It’s not the ingredients but the size that’s going to cause problem. There’s nothing wrong with iron but what happens when you make it really small? Up until now we’ve not had to worry about whether you can overdose on iron because it wasn’t possible, but now it is—now that these foods are more nutritious but also possibly more poisonous.”
Despite all these possible—and potentially life-threatening—downsides, the food industry is embracing nanotechnology because of the competitive advantages it brings to the food manufacturers themselves—not because of advantages to consumers, according to Ms. Shelke.
But if tests show nanotechnology is safe for humans, we could be in for some exciting times.
“In food, what we’re likely to see will help our immune system—adding functionality in nano particles to our food,” says Andrew Salamon, staff scientist of analytical sciences and laboratory Services at PerkinElmer, a Waltham, MA-based company that deals with human and environmental health.
With all of the things manufacturers will be able to add to food, he pointed out, there will be increased health benefits across the board: Everything from stronger bones to less obesity.
“Nutrition is the main reason nanotechnology will be used,” added Ms. Shelke, especially to add ingredients that are not otherwise easy to add to foods, such as amino acids, or fat- and water-soluble nutrients. And iron is a big area, she said, especially in children’s foods.
But these companies, said Mr. Hanson, “need more testing and they need complete labels. I’d like to see not just that it has nano omega three fatty acids but also how it’s encapsulated [by nanotechnology]. I don’t expect to see it on the bottle but I’d like to see it on the company website.”
Unfortunately, these aren’t the only concerns.
Ms. Shelke’s also worried about how to ensure the safe disposal of nanotech products.
After a person has eaten nanotechnology-dosed foods, the waste from their body will then enter the water stream, taking nano particles with it.
And she pointed to a new nanotechnology powder that can be sprayed on meat and glow if there is e-coli. The intensity of the illumination shows you how bad it is.
“The good news is that if someone uses this at home they can test their meat, use the uninfected parts and throw the others away—but what happens when [the nanotechnology-treated parts] are thrown away?” she said.
Nanotechnology could also be used in agriculture—to enhance the ability of plants to absorb nutrients, for example, or in the form of nanosensors that could be used to monitor soil conditions and crop growth and to decrease waste and cost while increasing production. However, Ms. Shelke explained, these agricultural nano materials could be blown onto other crops, onto our clothes, or our bodies.
“You may be able to harvest more food using nanotechnology but the problem is what is the unintended application of that technology? It’s a question of which risk do I choose?”
Nanotechnology: The New GMO Debate?
Because of all the uncertainty surrounding what nanotechnology foods are going to do for us, and to us, the clamor of the debate is rising to a level similar to that over genetically modified foods. So if it follows in the path of the GMO furor, the questions about nanotechnology won’t be answered for quite some time.
Below are some of the lessons that can be learned from the GMO debate, according to Mr. Hanson:
• Don’t mess with food.
• If you do, don’t try to pretend that it’s just like traditional food.
• Label all products that contain nano materials.
• Develop a pre-market approval process.
• Require approvals BEFORE products go on the market and monitoring AFTER.
• Give the public a voice in deciding what to put on the market.
• Conduct further research to address the knowledge gaps that currently exist and develop specific risk assessment methodologies. Fund this adequately.
• Apply the precautionary principle. Don’t wait for illnesses and death before regulating.