While the food industry has been using various sources of technology for decades to improve the appeal and shelf life of their products, nanotechnology in food is still a concept that’s in its infancy.
Whether you realize it or not, you may already consume foods and drinks that use this technology, such as certain beers, hamburgers and fruits. Some foods you regularly purchase might also come in “nonpackages” that help to reduce waste.
Is nanotechnology in foods beneficial, and more importantly, is it safe? Below we look at why nanomaterials are used in food and the pros and cons involved in this growing trend.
What Are Nanofoods?
The Nanoforum defines nanfoods as “those that are made with nanotechnology techniques or tools used during cultivation, production, processing, or packaging of the food.”
According to the company Azo Nano, “Nanotechnology in the food industry can take a number of forms. These include the use of nanotechnology in packaging materials, farming practices, food processing and also in the foods themselves. ”
The application of nanotechnology in food processing and preservation has benefits including reducing waste, extending shelf life of products and improving taste.
What Is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology in food is only one of many uses of nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology has been described as “the science of the very, very small. Measured in billionths of a meter, nanoparticles are similar in scale to viruses, proteins and antibodies,” as noted in an article published in The Guardian.
Because this branch of technology deals with tiny particles that are about as big as individual atoms and molecules, that means you basically can’t tell which types of foods, packages or products contain nanoparticles.
The “nanoscale” is about 1 to 100 nanometers. To put this into context, one sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.
What is nanotechnology used for, and how does it work exactly? There are dozens of different uses and types of nanotechnology, spanning various fields, including chemistry, biology, physics, materials science and engineering.
The National Nanotechnology Initiative explains:
Today’s scientists and engineers are finding a wide variety of ways to deliberately make materials at the nanoscale to take advantage of their enhanced properties, such as higher strength, lighter weight, increased control of light spectrum, and greater chemical reactivity than their larger-scale counterparts.
What products use nanotechnology? As of now, most of the 1,000+ products that are being made with nanoparticles are not food themselves — they are packages, cookware and supplements. Some examples include:
- cardboard containers (including for food)
- plastic beer bottles made with nanocomposite materials
- vitamin/mineral supplements
- some produce that is coated with a wax-like substance to prevent spoilage, such as apples, pears, peppers, cucumbers, and other fruit and vegetables
As reported by Food Safety News, other packaged foods contain “engineered particles,” including salad dressings/sauces, diet beverages, and boxed cake, muffin and pancakes mixes — however these are somewhat different than nanoparticles.
There’s also concern that nanoparticles may make their way into other foods, like meat, because they are fed to livestock in the form of antibiotics, plus used in fertilizers and pesticides.
Nanotechnology in Food (How It’s Used)
Some of the reasons that nanofoods have been developed include:
- Preserving food for longer periods of time. For example, keeping ingredients from separating and fizzy drinks from going flat.
- Creating more environmentally-friendly food packaging and reducing plastic use.
- Helping food manufacturers to increase the amount or availability of nutrients in certain foods. Nanopackaging can also be used to keep vitamin/mineral supplements from going bad.
- Creating lower-fat or lower-carb versions of foods while still maintaining their desirable texture.
- Giving foods specific tastes or textures, such as creaminess, meltiness, crunch, etc.
- Improving farming practices and increasing precision in farming techniques.
- Improving cookware.
- Potentially helping to prevent food allergies.
Benefits/Uses of Nanotechnology in Food (Can It Prevent Food Allergies?)
1. Can Improve Food’s Taste and Texture
The article published in The Guardian referenced above describes one example of how nanotechnology can be used to manipulate the texture of some foods: “Researchers are developing techniques to replace the insides of the fat droplets with water, creating an emulsion that has the same texture, but less fat than the real thing.”
Nanometre-sized grains of salt are under development, which could be used to increase salt’s surface area, cutting down on the amount needed to make food taste good. This has benefits for people who need to follow low-sodium diets, such as those with high blood pressure.
2. Can Help Preserve Foods/Beverages and Prevent Spoilage
One example of the use of nanoparticles in foods and packing is keeping ingredients like oils from separating from other liquids and preventing fizzy drinks from going flat.
How does nanotechnology help preserve food? Nono-packaging can keep oxygen from entering into sealed packaging and keep carbon dioxide from escaping, preventing spoilage and helping keep the right texture intact.
Various types of “smart packages” are also being created that will alert consumers as to when a food has spoiled by changing colors and indicating the presence of a harmful pathogen. Some cardboard and plastic containers are now being used to increase shelf life of products thanks to their antimicrobial or antifungal effects.
3. Improves Farming Processes
Nanotechnology is now being applied to the farming and livestock industries in several ways, such as by embedding fields with nanosensors that help with measuring nutrient levels and water content, alerting farmers about the presence of fungi or other pests, and delivering pesticides and fertilizers. This is intended to help cut down on the need for chemicals and excess resources, which can have benefits for the environment.
When it comes to raising livestock, animals can be tracked and monitored through embedded nanochips, which can also alert farmers of the presence of diseases among the animals and need for medications or other interventions.
4. May Help Reduce Food Allergies
What do studies tell us about the use of nanotechnology for food allergy symptoms?
Research recently unveiled at the European Gastroenterology Week conference suggests that nanoparticles used in some common allergen foods, such as wheat that contains the protein gluten, may protect against reactions of the immune system. They seem to be capable of doing this by keeping normally problematic food particles enclosed in a type of shell where they can’t be detected as “unsafe” by the body.
In one phase 2 clinical trial involving patients with celiac disease (an allergy to wheat), participants who received treatment with nanofoods showed 90 percent less immune response than those who were not treated. The treated patients were able to eat gluten with a substantial reduction in inflammatory responses, as findings showed that patients’ small intestines seemed somewhat protected from the effects of gluten exposure.
More studies are needed to confirm how safe and effective this approach may be, but as of now scientists, food makers and allergy sufferers are excited about the possibilities of nanotechnology in food for several reasons.
Risks, Side Effects and Interactions
Many experts believe that nanotechnology in food is safe and nothing to be concerned about since the human body is already accustomed to using nanosized food particles, considering our own digestive systems break down bigger nutrients into small bits every day.
However, there’s still much more to learn about the disadvantages of applying nanotechnology to foods, since right now there isn’t much reliable data regarding the possibility of toxicity that is available.
Researchers are investigating whether some nanoparticles that are used as food additives have the potential to cause health problems. For example, some particles used in processed foods or packaging that the body cannot break down and eliminate may wind up accumulating in the body, causing negative health impacts.
Examples of these types of potentially dangerous nanoparticles include nano-silver and titanium dioxide, which research suggests can get “stuck” in the digestive system (especially the small intestine), possibly leading to leaky gut syndrome and autoimmune disease symptoms.
Some experts believe that nanotechnology will be applied to medical applications before becoming a mainstream practice in the food/beverage industry. This is a good thing because the creation of medications is much more tightly regulated and rigorously tested.
Food producers in the United States do not have to declare specifically whether they use nanotechnology in their products, as of late 2019. However, the European Union recently introduced new regulations for food labeling that requires nanomaterials to be listed on labels.
Food companies that plan on using nanotechnology in their products going forward will be required to complete ongoing safety tests before being able to introduce new products into the market. In the meantime, it’s best to consume nanoproducts in small amounts or not at all until their safety has been proven.
- What is nanotechnology in food? Nanotechnology is the science of very, very small things.
- Nanoparticles can help improve food’s texture and taste, plus food preservation and efficacy of food packaging.
- Some of the reasons that the food industry and consumers can benefit from nanotechnology in foods include reducing use of plastics, creating more nutrient-dense foods, making food last longer, alerting consumers to the presence of pathogens, and allowing farmers to use less chemicals and resources.