Issue Date: January 2, 2012
Nanotech In Food
The year 2000 was supposed to begin a new era in food technology. Kraft Foods launched an ambitious effort called the NanoteK Consortium, made up of 15 universities and national labs, to fund research into personalized or “smart” foods, such as nanotechnology-enabled products that could respond to a person’s nutritional needs. Now, more than a decade later, Kraft and other food companies say they are not using nanotechnology in their products, at least not yet.
The change of heart is not due to any proof that nanotechnology applied to food is harmful. Rather it is because in the years since food and food packaging were first identified as a market for the nanometer-scale materials, a lack of understanding of the possible risks and benefits of the technology still exists.
Last month, the corporate responsibility advocacy organization As You Sow introduced a framework to help food companies such as Kraft, McDonalds, Whole Foods Market, Yum! Brands, and PepsiCo work with their suppliers to determine whether nanomaterials are present in their products and, if present, to confirm their safety. Food makers, including Kraft, provided perspective and feedback on the framework.
As You Sow Senior Strategist Michael Passoff says the food companies he approached were very open to talking about nanotechnology. “They are waiting to see how safety testing comes out, they are taking a precautionary approach,” he explains.
“My guess is their stance is due to the controversy and backlash against genetically modified organisms. Also, there are bigger questions with nanotechnology such as, ‘Can the particles lodge in your lungs or get into your brain?’ ” Passoff says. He adds that food companies also feel hampered in the use of nanotechnology because the Food & Drug Administration has not provided industry with regulatory certainty. “There has been little government action. The regulatory agencies are missing in action on this issue,” Passoff says.
For now, Kraft does not use nanotechnology in its products, but it has not closed the door on the subject. “As a leading food company, we need to understand the potential this technology may hold for us in terms of food safety, product quality, nutrition, and sustainability,” Kraft spokesman Richard Buino says. He identifies packaging as a possible application, “in particular, packaging that requires less material, which helps to reduce waste.”
The As You Sow framework suggests that nutritional additives, flavorings and colorings, and antibacterial coatings for packaging are other potential avenues for applying nanotechnology. It warns the food industry to guard against unnecessary risks to consumers, workers, and investors and asks it to be transparent about the use of nanotechnology, including safety concerns, and to make sure suppliers are doing the same.
Experts believe that nanotechnology is rarely used in foods, but they say it is difficult to find reliable information about the presence of nanoparticles in food. Jaydee Hanson, policy analyst at the watchdog group Center for Food Safety, has found only a few examples. He cites supplements that contain vitamins encapsulated with nanomaterials to improve bioavailability and nanoenhanced barriers to keep food fresher. MillerCoors, for instance, has introduced a plastic bottle that includes a sandwiched layer of nanoclay to keep out ultraviolet light and limit oxygen exchange.
Hanson says he expects to soon see what he calls nanopesticides—including antimicrobials—used in packaging that comes into contact with food. Such an application would be regulated by both the Environmental Protection Agency and FDA. Recently, EPA gave conditional approval to the use of HeiQ AGS-20, a nanosilver-based antimicrobial, in textiles for socks, sportswear, undergarments, and other applications (C&EN, Dec. 12, 2011, page 21).
“I’m not saying all uses of nanomaterials are bad,” Hanson says. “But certain sizes could be a problem. Particles smaller than 300 nm can cross the placental barrier. Those sizes might be useful for drugs, such as for cancer. But you don’t want a food product to be that small.”
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