Monday, February 8, 2010

Nanotechnology in food : Is it safe ?

Suman Sahai

Nanoparticles used in a variety of sectors are also being used in the processing and packaging of foods. According to a study done by Friends of the Earth, foods which contain nanoscale ingredients and additives are already found on supermarket shelves in Europe and the US. Given the increasing scientific evidence demonstrating the toxicity risks of nanomaterials, this is cause for serious concern.

Firms in Germany producing processed meats like ham and sausage are using already a nanotechnology-based carrier system using 30nm (1 nanometer = 0.0000001 cm) to encapsulate ingredients such as Vitamins C and E and fatty acids, which can be used as preservatives and processing aids. This nano system is reported to increase the potency and bioavailability of the active ingredients enabling faster processing, better colour of the product and the use of cheaper ingredients without compromising on taste. Nestlé and Unilever are said to be developing a nano-emulsion based ice cream which has a rich creamy texture and flavour but is actually low fat. Low fat ice creams otherwise do not taste as good as those made from full fat milk and cream.

Nanoparticles are now being added to many foods to improve flow properties, for example, how well thick liquids pour, colour and stability during processing, or to increase shelf life. For instance, aluminum-silicates are commonly used to prevent clumping in granular or powdered processed foods, and a form of titanium dioxide is routinely used as a food whitener in confectionery, cheeses and sauces to brighten up their colour.

Bread, breakfast cereals, beverages and dairy products like yoghurt drinks, ice cream and cheese are being fortified with vitamins, minerals such as iron, magnesium or zinc, bioactive peptides, and antioxidants. Some of these active ingredients are now being added to foods either as nanoparticles or in nanocapsules to slow their release and make them available for the life of the product.

Nanocapsules in food are used to carry bioactive ingredients like vitamins, isoflavones ( compounds similar to estrogens) , carotenoids, (precursors of vitamin A), essential oils, preservatives and food colouring substances. These are to improve the taste, appearance and nutritional properties of the food. BASF has produced a Vitamin E nano-solution, especially formulated for drinks like sports beverages and flavored waters which are now very popular among the youth.

Nano-sizing or nano-encapsulating active ingredients in nutraceuticals delivers greater bioavailability, improved solubility and increased potency compared to when these substances are simply added in powdered or even micro form. Nutraceuticals are new age compounds that aim to provide nutrition and health benefits. (Nutraceuticals: nutra= nutrition + ceuticals from pharmaceuticals).

The greater potency of nanoparticle additives reduces the quantities of additives required, and so benefit food processors by cutting cost. However the high potential for cellular uptake of nanomaterials, coupled with their greater chemical reactivity, could also introduce new health risks.

Apart from nanomaterials being added to food and food packaging, nanoparticles are also created during food processing. Nanoparticles are found in many foods not because they have been added to enhance taste and appearance but because of the technology used to process the foods. Food processing technologies that produce nanoparticles are not new but the rapidly expanding consumption of highly processed foods is increasing the volume of nanoparticles in human diets, resulting in higher exposure to these particles and raising health risks.

Processing techniques which produce nanoparticles are used in the manufacture of ready to eat foods like salad dressings, chocolate syrups, sweeteners and flavoured oils. Nanoparticles and nanoscale emulsions can be formed as a result of food processing techniques like high pressure homogenisation, dry ball milling, dry jet milling and ultrasound emulsification. It is likely that many food manufacturers particularly in developing countries are unaware that their foods contain nanoparticles. They may have simply licensed a processing technology without being aware of its details and safety implications. Food manufacturers like such processing techniques because the textural changes and flow properties they produce add commercial interest to their products.

Text Box: Nano coating on food  Apples in the US come with a waxy coating to stop the fruit from losing moisture and shriveling. Now nanotechnology provides edible coatings as thin as 5nm for use in meats, cheese, fruit and vegetables, as well as confectionery and baked goods. These coatings provide a barrier to moisture and gas exchange, and can deliver colours, flavours, and antioxidants to preserve the appearance of the products even after the packaging has been opened. Edible antibacterial nano coatings have been developed, which can be applied directly to bakery goods to increase their shelf life. In addition to the accidental presence of nanoparticles resulting from processing techniques, they can also enter food as contaminants. Researches have found that many food products contain insoluble, inorganic nanoparticles and microparticles which appear to have contaminated foods unintentionally, for

example as a result of the wear and tear of food processing machines or through environmental pollution.

Before its use in food, nanotechnology has been used in food packaging and food contact materials to extend the shelf-life of packaged foods. One of the earliest commercial applications of nanotechnology in the food sector is in

packaging. It is estimated that between 400 and 500 nano packaging products are in commercial use now, and the projection is that by 2020, nanotechnology will be used in a quarter of all food packaging world wide.

The main purpose of nano material in packaging is to increase the shelf life of packed foods by reducing the rate of deterioration. This is done by using packaging materials that will reduce gas and moisture exchange with the atmosphere and minimize UV light damage. For example, DuPont has produced a nano titanium dioxide plastic additive which can reduce UV damage in foods in transparent packaging. Nano packaging can also be designed to release antimicrobials, antioxidants, enzymes, flavours and nutraceuticals to keep the packaged food tasting ‘fresh’ for a longer period.

Certain kinds of nano packaging materials are made so as to interact with the food to monitor its deterioration. Nano packaging using carbon nanotubes is being developed with the ability to ‘pump’ out oxygen and carbon dioxide that would cause food and beverages to deteriorate as well as undesirable odours that make the food unappealing.

Nano-based antimicrobial packaging

Food packaging and containers are also made incorporating antimicrobial nanomaterials, to prevent or slow down the decay of food due to microbial action. These products commonly use nanoparticles of silver but also nano zinc oxide and nano chlorine dioxide. Packaging materials using magnesium oxide, copper oxide and titanium dioxide in nano form as well as carbon nanotubes are also being developed for use in antimicrobial food packaging.

Nanoscale packaging and containers with antibacterial function

Company/ Institution


SongSing Nano Technology Co., Ltd

Cling wrap treated with nano zinc oxide

Sharper Image

Plastic storage bags treated with nano silver

BlueMoonGoods, A-DO Global, Quan Zhou Hu Zheng Nano Technology Co.,

Ltd and Sharper Image

Storage containers treated with nano silver

Daewoo, Samsung and LG

Refrigerators treated with nano silver

Baby Dream® Co., Ltd

Baby cup treated with nano silver

A-DO Global

Chopping board treated with nano silver

SongSing Nano Technology Co

Tea pot treated with nano silver

Nano Care Technology Ltd

Kitchenware treated with nano silver

Source: - Friends of the Earth, 2008


Developing countries have begun to use nanotechnology in the absence of health and safety guidelines. India along with other Asian countries like China, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam is moving ahead to commercialise nanotechnology but there is as yet no public debate on its impacts, nor a regulatory regime.

In India the government is spending over US$6 million each year on nanotechnology research but regulatory oversight remains weak. Firms are getting ready to put out water filters using nanomaterials for better absorption of contaminants but reportedly, the companies have not performed any toxicology tests because they are not required to do so.

There are outstanding concerns about what happens to nanoparticles once they are inside the body ; do they remain embedded or move freely ? they are known to be highly interactive so what are the immune or inflammatory responses they elicit ? The behavior of a nanoparticle varies according to size, shape, surface area and chemistry with the compounds it interacts with. Exhaustive safety studies are needed before nanotechnology is permitted to be used in the food and beverage sector.

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