Nanotechnology is having an impact on several aspects of the food industry, from how food is grown to how it is packaged. Companies are developing nanomaterials that will make a difference not only in the taste of food, but also in food safety, and the health benefits food delivers.
Use of nanomaterials in food packaging is already a reality. One example is bottles made with nanocomposites that minimize the leakage of carbon dioxide out of the bottle; this increases the shelf life of carbonated beverages without having to use heavier glass bottles or more expensive cans. Another example is food storage bins with silver nanoparticles embedded in the plastic. The silver nanoparticles kill bacteria from any food previously stored in the bins, minimizing harmful bacteria.
There are other food packaging products currently under development. For example nanosensors in plastic packaging can detect gases given off by food when it spoils and the packaging itself changes color to alert you to food gone bad. Plastic films are being developed that will allow the food to stay fresher longer. These films are packed with silicate nanoparticles to reduce the flow of oxygen into the package and the leaking of moisture out of the package,
Nanosensors are being developed that can detect bacteria and other contaminates such as salmonella on the surface of food at a packaging plant. This will allow for frequent testing at a much lower cost than is incurred by sending samples to a lab for analysis. This point-of-packaging testing, if conducted properly, has the potential to dramatically reduce the chance of contaminated food reaching grocery store shelves.
There are also nanosensors being developed to detect pesticides on fruit and vegetables. While this would be useful at a packing plant I’m anxiously waiting for the handheld version so I can check out the apples and grapes in my local grocery store!
Nanoparticles are being used to deliver vitamins or other nutrients in food and beverages without affecting the taste or appearance. These nanoparticles actually encapsulate the nutrients and carry them through the stomach into the bloodstream. For many vitamins this delivery method also allows a higher percentage of the nutrients to be used by the body because, when not encapsulated by the nanoparticles, some nutrients would be lost in the stomach.
Research is also being conducted to develop nanocapsules containing nutrients that would be released when nanosensors detect a deficiency in your body. Basically this research could result in a super vitamin storage system in your body that gives you just what you need, when you need it.
Nanomaterials are being developed to improve the taste, color, and texture of foods. For example “interactive” foods are being developed that would allow you to choose which flavor and color a piece of food has. The idea is that nanocapsules that contain flavor or color enhancers sit in the food waiting until a hungry consumer triggers them. The method hasn’t been published, so it will be interesting to see how this particular trick is accomplished.
Finally, nanoparticle emulsions are being used in ice cream and various spreads to improve the texture and uniformity.
Researchers are working on pesticides encapsulated in nanoparticles; these only release pesticide in an insect’s stomach, which minimizes the contamination of plants themselves.
Another development being looked at is a network of nanosensors and dispensers throughout a food crop. The sensors recognize when a plant needs nutrients or water, before you could see any sign that the plant is deficient. The dispensers then release fertilizer, nutrients, or water as needed, optimizing the growth of each plant in the field one by one.
While there is lots of opportunities for using nanotechnology to improve food production, packaging, and quality, there is also some concern about how this will play out. For example the organizers of the Joint Symposium on Food Safety and Nutrition, organized by the Central Science Laboratory in the UK and the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the University of Maryland, have chosen to focus their 2007 symposium on Nanotechnology in Foods and Cosmetics. They feel that nanotech materials both have “the potential for use in a vast variety of products and may pose new and unique safety issues.”
In its February, 2007 meeting the European Food Safety Authority Regulatory agency announced that it was forming a scientific panel to conduct a risk assessment of nanoparticles in food and food packaging. This panel should be able to draw input and expertise from across Europe. For example, Denmark’s National Food Institute is working on a project to gather toxicology information on nanoparticles and the UK Food Safety Authority has put together a report that provides “an outline of potential areas for future regulation relating to the use of nanotechnology and nanomaterials in foods”.
In August 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) formed a Nanotechnology Task Force with goals that include: