Once a far-fetched fantasy a long way into the future, nanotechnology is set to have a huge impact on our lives in the here and now. With developments of materials and devices that can monitor blood, detect environmental pollutants and store energy better, nanotech is becoming an integral part of our ever-changing world.
One of nanotech’s most immediate effects will be felt in our food with companies worldwide conducting research using nanotechnology to develop foods with new possibilities in tastes, textures, packaging and enhanced nutrient absorption.
A recent report by International lobby group, The Friends of the Earth (FoE) found that 104 foods, food contact materials and agricultural products containing nanomaterials are now on sale internationally.
Nanotechnology is now used to manufacture some nutritional supplements, flavour and colour additives, food packaging, cling wrap, containers and chemicals used in agriculture.
Some products containing nano-sized particles are already on the market. In America and Europe, nano-sized ingredients have been added to some fruit juices, processed meats, diet milkshakes and baby food.
“We know manufactured nanomaterials are already in some products found on Australian supermarket shelves and used in Australian kitchens,” FoE Nanotechnology Project’s report co-author Georgia Miller said.
“Packaging for Cadbury chocolates, antibacterial kitchen wipes and cleaning sprays, and refrigerators sold by Samsung, Hitachi and LG Electronics now contain manufactured nanomaterials.”
The nanofood sector is led by the US, followed by Japan and China. Asian countries, particularly China, are expected to be the biggest market for nanofood by 2010.
Food packaging using nanotechnology is more advanced than nanofoods, with products on the market that incorporate nanomaterials that scavenge oxygen, fight bacteria, keep in moisture or sense the state of the food.
Plastic incorporating nanoparticles of clay or oxides of metals such as zinc and titanium have already been used to package meats, cheese, confectionery, beer, fruit juice and soft drink overseas.
The fact that nano additives are already part of our products is leading to growing calls for better safety assessment and regulation of nanotechnology in food.
According to report co-author Dr Rye Senjen, the worry is that “Australian laws do not require manufacturers to declare whether or not their products contain manufactured nanomaterials, or to conduct new safety tests on nano ingredients.
“Australian regulators have no way to know how many nano foods may be on Australian supermarket shelves and no way to check whether or not they are safe.”
The UK government’s Central Science Laboratory’s Dr Qasim Chaudhry, says engineered nanosized particles and other structures are used to develop new tastes, textures, and nutritional qualities, as well as improving shelf life and traceability of food products.
The main concern to consumers from nanoparticles in food packaging is through their migration into food and drinks, says Dr Chaudhry. Currently, however, there is not enough information to adequately assess the risk of these additives and ingredients.
With this uncertainty in mind, hasty action should be avoided, especially where food and drinks containing nano-ingredients are likely to be consumed in large quantities by a significat proportion of the population.
Complicating the issue is an ongoing debate about the exact size of particles that have the potential to cross into the body’s cells.
While the nanoscale usually refers to structures under 100 nanometres, FoE points to evidence that structures of 300 nanometres can actually also present risks and should be checked for safety.
It has also been shown that particles smaller than 70 nanometres can reach the nucleus of the cell and possibly disrupt the DNA.
Because current regulations do not fully cover nanotechnology in food, the European food science professional body, the Institute of Food Science and Technology, recently recommended that nanoparticles be treated as new, potentially harmful materials, until testing proves otherwise.
An expert in international nanotechnology regulation, Monash University Professor Graeme Hodge, warns against a “gut reaction” to nanotechnology without considering and assessing all the evidence.
“Don’t panic up front,” he says, adding that the use of nanotechnology in some areas will be “quite benign.” According to the Professor, a host of standards guarding food safety are already in place. “We’re not coming at the question of nanotechnology from a blank slate,” he explained.
Professor Hodge has helped the Australian government to prepare a report on nanotechnology to identify possible gaps in Australian regulations. Australia is one of the few countries to have done this.
However, he does say that it is too early to know if new regulations are really required, especially since international standard-setting bodies are only now officially defining the characteristics of nanomaterials.
A federal health department statement on behalf of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) said that “no policy has been developed in regards to a specific regulatory response to nanotechnology.
“FSANZ is not aware, nor has it been made aware, of any commercially sold foods in Australia that have been developed using nanotechnology.”
The statement says FSANZ is gathering information and discussing the food safety implications of nanotechnology with international bodies and is yet to determine if a risk assessment is required for nanotechnology in foods.
The statement continues by confirming that “robust regulatory arrangements to ensure the safety of food” are in place.
To nano or not to nano?
Few studies have been carried out on the toxic effects of nanoparticles, and most deal with the risks of breathing them in, rather than consuming them, says Dr Chaudhry.
Although one of the benefits of nano-technology may be to increase absorption of nutrients from food, there are infinite unknown consequences, such as a possible change in the balance of nutrients in the body.
“It is also of concern that the introduction into foods of nanoparticles designed to carry dietary supplements could lead to the introduction of foreign substances into the blood,” he explained.
An example of this problem is Nanosilver which is good at killing bacteria. However, no research has been published about the possible effects of Nanosilver on the beneficial bacteria in our bodies.
“There is an urgent need for research into the behaviour of foodstuffs, both manipulated and processed at the nanoscale and the properties of manufactured nanoparticles introduced into foods whether deliberately or as the result of contamination.”
Apart from the many safety issues and questions around this modern marvel, one thing is certain – nanofood will make it even more unlikely that people will eat fresh, sustainably produced food, bringing with it an endless array of debates about priorities for our modern lifestyles.
Lena Zak is the editor of FOOD Magazine.