With nanotechnology industry can create materials with very small dimensions, specific shapes or compositions that behave in a desirable way to improve foods and food processing.
People are daily exposed to nanoparticles. They exist in nature, though it is also possible to deliberately create them. These nanoparticles with very small dimensions and nanotechnology can provide ways to modify the composition of food, feed, and packaging materials at a very small scale. This may allow for the development of new foods and improve food processing and packaging in ways that will benefit consumers.
What is nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is the intentional control of materials (including food and feed) at very small dimensions ranging from 1 to 100 nanometres (nm). A nanoparticle is a particle in this range. The word “nano” refers to a billionth of a metre (10-9m). To put this into context, a human hair is about 80,000 nm wide.1,2 At these very small dimensions, the materials in food can behave in different ways. Nanotechnology is a new way to deliberately create matter with very small dimensions, specific shapes or compositions that behave in a desirable way. With nanotechnology, industry can improve or create new food, feed and processing operations.
Widespread application of nanotechnology in the food and feed industry is still at an early stage, with many applications of nanotechnology being currently under development. One important opportunity may be the use of nanotechnology to improve nutrition: it may be easier for the body to absorb nutrients, vitamins or enzymes contained inside a nanoparticle which could also help mask undesirable flavours.
Another example is the development of packaging materials with unique physical and chemical properties. In the United States, for example, some beer manufacturers are using nanotechnology to incorporate nanoparticles into the packaging materials used for beer bottles. These nanoparticles help the beer retaining its fizz by prevent gas escaping and they stop air from entering, which spoils the beer’s flavour.3-4
Research is also looking at how nanotechnology could be used to reduce the use of antibiotics in animals, which could help decrease the development of antibiotic resistance in both animals and humans.5 Other expected benefits from nanotechnology research include better efficacy and delivery of pesticides and biocides, safer animal feed and improvements in the feeding efficiency, nano-barcodes for improved traceability, and reformulation of foods which are lower in fat, salt and sugar while retaining the foods taste and appearance.3-4 Table 1 shows a summary of potential applications of nanotechnology in food and feed.
People are naturally exposed to nanoparticles. In the gut, for example, food breaks down into nanoparticles so we can absorb nutrients. Traditional food processes such as milling or grinding, introduces nanoparticles in foods for many years. Some foods have a nanoscale structure that is invisible to the naked eye, such as the tiny water-in-oil droplets in mayonnaise.
Just because a material is ‘nano’, it does not mean that it is inherently riskier than other materials or chemicals. As with any new technology or product, potential risks include impacts on long-term health and the environment. There are still gaps in our knowledge about the safety of the application of nanotechnology in food and food production.6
The safety of any potential use of nanotechnology in food would need to be demonstrated and assessed by European regulators before it could be used in the EU. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has issued guidance on the risk assessment of nanotechnology in food and feed.7 Considerable research is underway to assess the safety of nanoparticles at all stages, from manufacture and exposure in the work place, to their eventual fate in the environment.
There is no dedicated regulation in Europe on nanotechnology in food and feed yet, but the current European food and feed legislation does address the aspect of safety associated with nanotechnology. For instance, the General food law in Europe says that only safe food can be placed on the market and since 2014, it has been a legal requirement to label foods that contain nanoparticles to inform consumers of their presence.6,8,9,10
The future of nanotechnology in the food and feed industries is uncertain. While there are many benefits from the use of nanotechnology, there is a lack of awareness about the technology amongst European consumers. Although it is difficult to assess how consumers will react to current and future applications of nanotechnology, there is no doubt that consumer acceptance will be critical if widely used in the future. There is therefore a need to inform consumers of the potential benefits and safety considerations and to increase their understanding. This may help to avoid unnecessary alarm stemming from unfamiliarity with the technology.6,7,11
About the author
EUFIC – The European Food Information Council, is a non-profit organisation, established in 1995, which stands up for science-based information on food and health. Our mission is to offer accessible, appealing and actionable science based information on food and health to inspire and empower people to make better decisions about diet and lifestyle. At EUFIC, we are a group of passionate science and communication experts who believe in the power of informed consumers and in a world where people choose to live healthily because they know how to.
This article was adapted from ‘Opportunities for nanotechnology in food and feed’ from http://www.eufic.org/en/food-production/article/opportunities-for-nanotechnology-in-food-and-feed, EUFIC (2017).
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