In Nanotechnology and Food What You Don't Know May Just Leave You Uninformed

The UK Government in the form of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has released their much awaited report on nanotechnology and food.

First impressions are that it is a quite honest assessment. They confess that they really don’t know the extent of nanotechnology’s use in food, or at least that is the impression one draws from news reports. They blame these “gaps in knowledge” on a food industry that is too secretive about its use, or presumably its lack of use, of nanotechnology in its products.

The Committee’s honesty was further reflected by its refusal to hype the use of nanotechnology in food by using obviously inflated market numbers. To emphasize how brave a move this is, just yesterday I received an e-mail from a UK-based nanotechnology publication that made a point of highlighting those exact hyped numbers once again.

Frankly the whole process has proven itself to be an open and honest investigation into the subject with top-notch experts giving testimony and video’s made of at least some of the proceedings.

But at the end we are left with the same head scratching we started with and no clear path on how to remedy the “knowledge gap” except for the oft-cited need to list ingredients. But labeling here will not be much more effective than it might be for cosmetics, which the EU has also prescribed. Will adding the term “nanoscale” before or after to the 14-syllable chemical that makes your cupcake make you an informed consumer?

As I have argued before,  food companies are acutely aware of the psychology of the consumer. They understand that your average food shopper doesn’t “want to hear both sides of the argument and then come to an informed opinion”. They know that if someone starts yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater, people are not going to look for the source of the fire and put it out, but instead trample anyone in their way as they surge toward the exit.

Food companies are highly regulated. They need to have all their food additives tested and approved before they go out to the public. But if you have groups out there that are more intent on bringing down “big business” and by extension “technology” than safety and don’t really care if it comes in the form of attacking GM crops or nanoscale additives then you might find an industry that not only wants to keep its use of these technologies secretive, but even worse keep them off the shelves.



IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
New York, NY