Nanotechnology is found in a variety of sectors—drug administration, water filtration, and solar technology, to name a few—but what you may not know is that nanotechnology could have been in your last meal.
Over the last ten years, the food industry has been utilizing nanotechnology in a multitude of ways.1 Nanoparticles can increase opaqueness of food coloring, make white foods appear whiter, and even prevent ingredients from clumping together.1 Packaging companies now utilize nano-sized clay pieces to make bottles that are less likely to break and better able to retain carbonation.2 Though nanotechnology has proven to be useful to the food industry, some items that contain nanoparticles have not undergone any safety testing or labeling. As more consumers learn about nanotechnology’s presence in food, many are asking whether it is safe.
Since the use of nanotechnology is still relatively new to the food industry, many countries are still developing regulations and testing requirements. The FDA, for example, currently requires food companies that utilize nanotechnology to provide proof that their products won’t harm consumers, but does not require specific tests proving that the actual nanotechnology used in the products is safe.2 This oversight is problematic because while previous studies have shown that direct contact with certain nanoparticles can be harmful for the lungs and brain, much is still unknown about the effects of most nanoparticles. Currently, it is also unclear if nanoparticles in packaging can be transferred to the food products themselves. With so many uncertainties, an activist group centered in Washington, D.C. called Friends of the Earth is advocating for a ban on all use of nanotechnology in the food industry.2
However, the situation may not require such drastic measures. The results of a study last year published in the Journal of Agricultural Economics show that the majority of consumers would not mind the presence of nanotechnology in food if it makes the food more nutritious or safe.3 For example, one of the applications of nanotechnology within the food sector focuses on nanosensors, which reveal the presence of trace contaminants or other unwanted microbes.5 Additionally, nanomaterials could be used to make more impermeable packaging that could protect food from UV radiation.5
Nanotechnology could also be applied to water purification, nutrient delivery, and fortification of vitamins and minerals.5 Water filters that utilize nanotechnology incorporate carbon nanotubes and alumina fibers into their structure, which allows microscopic pieces of sediment and contaminants to be removed from the water.6 Additionally, nanosensors made using titanium oxide nanowires, which can be functionalized to change color when they come into contact with certain contaminants, can help detect what kind of sediment is being removed.6 Encapsulating nutrients on the nanoscale-level, especially in lipid or polymer-based nanoparticles, increases their absorption and circulation within the body.7 Encapsulating vitamins and minerals within nanoparticles slows their release from food, causing absorption to occur at the most optimal part of digestion.4 Coatings containing nano-sized nutrients are also being applied to foods to increase their nutritional value.7 Therefore, there are many useful applications of nanoparticles that consumers have already shown to support.
While testing and research is an ongoing process, nanotechnology is already making food safer and healthier for consumers. The FDA is currently studying the efficacy of nanotechnology in food under the 2013 Nanotechnology Regulatory Science Research Plan. Though the study has not yet been completed, the FDA has stated that in the interim, it “supports innovation and the safe use of nanotechnology in FDA-regulated products under appropriate and balanced regulatory oversight.”8,9 As nanotechnology becomes commonplace, consumers can also expect to see an increase in the application of nanotechnology in food and food packaging in the near future.
- Ortiz, C. Wait, There's Nanotech in My Food? http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/a12790/wait-theres-nanotechnology-in-my-food-16510737/ (accessed November 9, 2015).
- Biello, D. Do Nanoparticles in Food Pose a Health Risk? http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-nanoparticles-in-food-pose-health-risk/ (accessed October 1, 2015).
- Yue, C., Zhao, S. and Kuzma, J. Journal of Agricultural Economics. 2014. 66: 308–328. doi: 10.1111/1477-9552.12090
- Sozer, N., & Kokini, J. Trend Biotechnol. 2009. 27(2), 82-89.
- Duncan, T. J. Colloid Interface Sci. 2011. 363(1), 1-24.
- Inderscience Publishers. (2010, July 28). Nanotechnology for water purification. ScienceDaily. (accessed March 3, 2016)
- Srinivas, P. R., Philbert, M., Vu, T. Q., Huang, Q., Kokini, J. L., Saos, E., … Ross, S. A. (2010). Nanotechnology Research: Applications in Nutritional Sciences. The Journal of Nutrition, 140(1), 119–124.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/ScienceResearch/SpecialTopics/Nanotechnology/ucm273325.htm (accessed November 9, 2015).
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2015). http://www.fda.gov/ScienceResearch/SpecialTopics/Nanotechnology/ucm301114.htm (accessed November 9, 2015).