The future of nanotechnology in the food industry

“This gum is a full three course meal all by itself.
It will be the end of all kitchens and all cooking.
Just a little strip of Wonka’s magic chewing gum and that is all you will ever need at breakfast, lunch and dinner"
Willy Wonka, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Fancy a chewing gum that delivers the flavours of a three-course meal?

With nanotechnology, such extraordinary ideas can become a reality. Only recently did British food scientist David Hart, at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, announce that he was at the brink of creating such flavoursome chewing gum using the powers of nanotechnology.

While it has yet to revolutionise the foods we eat on a global scale, the potential of nanotechnology to deliver healthier, longer-lasting and better-tasting foods cannot be ignored.

Small size, big potential

Nanotechnology is essentially the science and engineering of very small particles between 1-100 nanometres (nm) in size (smaller than human cells and bacteria).

By reducing the size of food particles to the nano-size, this can help improve the properties of food ingredients such as vitamins and minerals. Nano-sized food particles have a greater surface area per mass unit, and greater surface areas than larger particles, making them more biologically active. For example, smaller salt particles have an increased ratio of surface area to mass – this allows food manufactures to use less salt in their products without having to compromise taste.

Nanotechnology can also aid in the delivery and absorption of food additives and dietary supplements by cells and tissues. The process is known as a nano-delivery system and involves the encapsulation of additives and supplements such as vitamins, minerals, flavours and omega-3 fatty acids in nano-sized vessels. In this way, the additives and supplements are protected from degradation, increasing their bioavailability to cells and tissues. Nano-sized vessels can be coated so that they provide targeted delivery of food ingredients to their sites of action in the body.

The applications of nanotechnology expand beyond nanofoods and nano-delivery to include food processing, food packaging and food safety.

According to Food Policy and Regulation director Kim Leighton at the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), the most likely area that nanotechnology could be used in Australia is in packaging materials.

"There’s work being done in packaging material – such as to improve the stability of packaging materials and to reduce the degradation of products in packaging – but even in this area, it is still at a research stage," he said.

Where are the nanoparticles?

Nanoparticles are more common than one might think. For example, water and air are naturally comprised of nanoparticles. Some food ingredients are also naturally in nanoscale proportions. For example, the proteins in mayonnaise form nanoscale clusters – and it’s these nanostructures that contribute to the smooth, creamy texture of mayonnaise.

The Project on Emerging Technologies, established in 2005 by the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in the US and the Pew Charitable Trusts, to ensure public engagement in the use of nanoparticles, lists 39 consumer products in its inventory that comprise of nanoparticles.

In addition to supplements, cooking utensils and food packaging equipment, the inventory lists a variety of food and beverage products comprised of nanoparticles currently for sale. Examples include the Canola Active Oil from Israeli company, Shemen Industries, and Nanoceuticals Slim Shake Chocolate from American company, RBC Life Sciences.

According to FSANZ, there are no manufactured nanofoods or beverages in the Australian market as yet.

“The food industry has informed us that they do not plan to use nanotechnology in the near future," a FSANZ spokeswoman told Food Magazine.

The world’s three biggest food manufacturers; Nestlé, Kraft Foods and Unilever, have all denied any current use of nanotechnology, however, they have indicated they are keeping a close eye on the scientific research.

Kraft Foods states on their website: "Currently we’re not using nanotechnology. But as a leading food company, we need to understand the potential this technology may hold for us in terms of food safety, product quality, nutrition and sustainability."

According to a Unilever spokesperson there is "considerable potential" for nanotechnologies in food and beverage production.

A spokeswoman for Nestlé Australia told Food Magazine: "Nestlé is not conducting any research into nanotechnology.

We recognize the potential nanotechnology has in the longer term to improve the properties and benefits of food – we therefore support the principle of sound scientific research on possible applications of nanotechnology in food production."

According to Mr Leighton, the amount of research being conducted by Australian manufacturers on the applications of nanotechnology in foods was "very limited."

Nanotechnology is only one very small fraction of the total research budget available for companies," Mr Leighton said. "In fact, most of the work being done in Australia will be more to do with academic research and packaging research, rather than its application in food."

Better safe than sorry

Despite evidence demonstrating the potential evolutionary benefits of nanotechnology in the food sector, there are still many issues that need to be dealt with before food produced using nanotechnology can be declared consumer safe.

Rodent studies conducted by researchers around the world in the last 10 years have shown that the smallest nanoparticles are more diversely distributed around the body, including to the brain, than the larger counterparts.

Research led by Roel Schins at the Environmental Health Research Institute in Germany and published in the scientific journal, Nanotoxicology, revealed that compounds used as food additives such as titanium dioxide and silica can cause DNA damage at the nanoscale.

Worldwide, there is a lack of nano-specific regulation of foods produced using nanotechnology, and perhaps this is due to a limited amount of knowledge on how the physio-chemical properties of nanoparticles, such as size and surface chemistry, affect their absorption and distribution in the body.

In Australia, foods produced using novel nanotechnology will be regulated the same way as ‘novel foods’, ‘food additives’, ‘processing aids,’ and ‘nutritive substances’ in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.

When Food Magazine went to print, the European Commission called for public consultation on a proposed definition of the term ‘nanomaterial’. The definition will be used as an "overarching, broadly applicable reference term for any European Union communication or legislation addressing nanomaterials."

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration developed a Nanotechnology Task Force in 2006 to identify and recommend ways to address knowledge or policy gaps in the safe and effective use of nano-engineered materials in FDA-regulated products.

Mr Leighton said that providing awareness to consumers about the use of nanotechnology in foods was a necessary part of regulation.

"It’s important that consumers have sufficient information to make an informed choice – so where nanotechnology is used in a food – it is appropriate that consumers have access to the information, or at least are aware that nanotechnology has been applied."

According to Mr Leighton, consumers are currently more interested in fresh and natural foods than nanofoods.

“Until we see some real, practical evidence that nanotechnology is a useful technology and the Industry can benefit from it, it is unlikely that it will be adopted in Australia.

"The application of nanotechnology [in food production] depends on whether there is a clear benefit, whether it is efficient and effective in delivering that benefit and whether it provides a competitive advantage to the industry or the manufacturer. If it doesn’t do all of those things in the first instance, a manufacturer has no incentive to use it."

While the use of nanotechnology in foods and beverages is still at its early stages of research in Australia – you have to admit – the development of a three-course meal-flavoured chewing gum, would be a pretty cool thing for Industry.

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