Nanotechnology and Food: Healthier and Tastier Food or a Health Risk?

The researchers at Wageningen University in Central Holland are absolutely committed to exploiting nanotechnology for food applications in order to make food healthier, tastier and safer.

But food is a tricky area. Itâ''s not like improved tennis racquets, with food we put it in our bodies and the quality of it determines our health. (For reference, check out the documentary â''Super Size Meâ'', which demonstrates the potential health risks of ingesting nothing but McDonaldâ''s food for 30 daysâ''by the way there is no known nanotechnology in a Big Mac).

This dichotomy between what researchers around the world are trying to accomplish by applying nanotechnology to food and the general sensitivity of doing anything with food chemistry has pushed the word â''nanotechnologyâ'' out of the lexicon of most of the worldâ''s leading food manufacturers, and led to articles like this one from the BBC.

A portion of the â''nanotechnologyâ'' that is used for the food industry today has nothing to do with ingredients of the food, but rather how it is processed. For instance, in separation technology for food processing. If you can make the tiny holes used for separating food into its component parts more precisely shaped and smaller, it makes for better food and better processes. Also, atomic force microscopes (AFM) allow us to look at the molecular structures of food more precisely.

Another area is the packaging. By putting nanoclays into polymers you can create better barrier protection for the beverages contained in plastic bottles or the food in plastic wrappings.

But the issue that has raised the alarm bells in the BBC article and elsewhere is the use of nanotechnology in the ingredients of foods. For instance, TiO2 and SiO2 nanoparticles have been researched with to alter food properties, as well as nanocapsules to encapsulate nutrients, flavors, aromas to increase bioavailability and provide better uptake into the body.

While carbon nanotubes have been looked at for encapsulating active compounds in drug delivery (without much success) I am not aware of any research with them that has been directed at using them for food nutrient encapsulation.

Nonetheless the BBC article raises the specter of nano-sized chunks of carbon penetrating the nucleus of a cell side-by-side with a graphic of a carbon nanotube. While Professor Mark Welland of Cambridge University, one of the most eminent nanotechnology researchers in the world, concedes that he is not sure what impact this carbon in the nucleus may have, the fear has been heightened sufficiently.

But the truth is that it is not known how nanocapsules will act in the human digestive system if ingested with food. In addition, ultrafine particles, let alone nanoparticles, have shown the ability to penetrate through the skin, or translocate from the respiratory system to other organs.

The toxicological issues of nanoparticles and nanostructures is a critical area of research, and every reasonable effort should be made to determine whether their use in food products presents any health risks.

But there are nanotechnologies being considered for food applications that are quite distinct from the world of food ingredients, such as nano-enabled pathogen detection in foods, that could save thousands of lives from food-borne pathogen illness. Shall we walk away from that potential while we work out the toxicological issues of nanoparticles in food ingredients?

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