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How Will Nanotechnology be Used in Food and What are the Potential Risks and Benefits?

Nanotechnology -- which, for those who are not familiar, refers to a broad range of research and technology development done at a very small size (at the atomic, molecular or macromolecular levels) -- is moving forward at record speeds, with manufacturers from numerous industries jumping on board.


Nanotechnology is being used to increase the nutrients you absorb from food and beverages such as tea, fruit juice and wine.

In fact, according to the National Science Foundation, goods and services related to nanotechnology will reach $1 trillion globally by 2015.

How does it work? By reducing commonly used materials in size, they exhibit new properties that ordinarily wouldn't be associated with the material. For instance, nano-sized particles may differ in color, strength, reactivity, electrical conductivity and elasticity compared to their larger-sized alternatives.

These tiny particles -- such as carbon, silver, titanium, and zinc ranging from just one nanometer to 100 nanometers in size -- are already being added to a wide variety of consumer products, such as:

  • Sunscreens

  • Cosmetics

  • Washing machines

  • Baby products

  • Fabrics

  • Air fresheners

These widely untested particles are also being added increasingly to another major category: your food.

Are There Nanoparticles in Your Meals?

There are more than 600 nanofood products already on the market throughout the world, with more coming soon.

"Every major food corporation has a program in nanotechnology or is looking to develop one," says Jozef Kokini, director of the Center for Advanced Food Technology at Rutgers University.

Here are some examples of how nanotechnology is being used by the food industry:

  • German chemical manufacturer BASF produces nano-scale synthetic lycopene. This antioxidant can be added to lemonade, fruit juices, cheese and margarine, and is more easily absorbed by the body while increasing product shelf life.

  • Shemen Industries produces Canola Activa oil, which contains free phytosterols and other healthful components that are normally insoluble in water or fats. The oil is said to reduce cholesterol intake into your body by up to 14 percent.

  • Chicago-based Nu-Mega and Clover Corp. have used nanotechnology to incorporate omega-3 fats (in tuna fish oil) into Tip-Top Up bread in western Australia. The fish oil is contained in nanocapsules that only open once they're in your stomach, so you don't taste the fish oil in the bread at all.

  • Scientists are using nanotechnology to add beta-carotene, a carotenoid used for health and coloring purposes that is normally insoluble in water, to beverages.

  • Nanotechnology is being used to create "smart" food packaging that can detect spoilage and contaminants.


Nanofoods do not currently need to be labeled as such, so you could be enjoying nanoparticles and not even know it.

  • Nanotechnology can even be used to change a product's color, flavor or nutrient contents to accommodate individuals. For instance, Kraft Foods and NanoteK researchers are developing an "electronic tongue" that will release controlled amounts of molecules that tailor the smell and taste of a food for each consumer.

  • Makers of tea, cranberry juice, blueberry juice and wine are using nanotechnology to increase the bioavailability of the drinks' active ingredients.

  • Another technology from NanoteK uses nanocapsules that contain a dozen or more flavors, colors and nutrients, added to colorless beverages. The consumer chooses which flavors, colors and nutrients to include, then microwaves the beverage to release them.

  • "Smart" foods are being developed using nanotechnology that can sense whether you're allergic to their ingredients, and then block the allergenic substance.

What are Nanotechnology's Drawbacks?

Using technology to increase the nutrient value, shelf-life and safety of foods sounds like a great idea, but there are significant concerns being raised.

In 2007, the U.S. government invested $1.4 billion into research and development of nanotechnology. But only 1 percent to 4 percent of that amount was allocated to risk assessment.

In other words, these tiny particles are being developed, and in some cases are already on the market, but no one knows what the health or environmental impacts will be.

For instance, a small amount of research has found that nanoparticles do not exhibit the same properties as their larger counterparts. Instead, they may be more reactive, more mobile and more toxic to people and the environment. Preliminary research has suggested that nanoparticles may:

  • Increase oxidative stress

  • Contribute to DNA mutation and cancer

  • Cause cell death

Nanofoods that are already on the market do not have to be labeled as such, so consumers may be buying them without even knowing. Until more research is done to prove the safety of nanotechnology in the food supply, some consumers are increasingly buying locally grown foods from farmers they trust, and choosing traditionally grown foods in favor of those using the newest technology.

Recommended Reading

Will Edible Coatings Soon Replace Plastic, Cardboard and Glass Packaging on Your Foods?

How Many Insect Parts and Rodent Hairs are Allowed in Your Food?


Friends of the Earth January 30, 2008 January 31, 2008

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