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February 20th, 2009
Nanotechnology is in your food. Not all food. But those tiny, specialized particles (1,000 of them together would approximate the thickness of a piece of office paper), which are already advancing research in energy, biotech and medicine, are finding their way into food stuffs. Used in different ways, nanoparticles can extend food shelf life, add health benefits, impact flavor or even signal bacteria contamination.
But many people watching these innovations are shaking their heads with distrust.
"Companies are engaged in nanoscale research; however, they do not publicly declare so partly because of uncertainty in the safety assessment and regulatory climate," said Betty Bugusu, research scientist at the Institute of Food Technologists in Washington, D.C.
Think of the arguments surrounding genetically modified crops this past decade and you'll have some idea of the controversy over nanotechnology being used in food. Add to that the reality that companies aren't always forthcoming about their use of nanotechnology when developing new products. The secrecy intended to deter competitors from stealing ideas can also make identifying potential harm more difficult for the regulatory agencies trying to manage risks and create law for this emerging technology.
Nonetheless, nanotechnology could offer benefits in food safety, storage, packaging and nutrition.
"I, personally, think that the most important applications of nanotechnology and food are in the area of sensing -- spoilage, bacteria, other contaminants; crop safety," said Lori Sheremeta, research officer for the Alberta Ingenuity Fund, National Institute for Nanotechnology in Edmonton, Canada.
The Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies, which has a database of consumer products and primarily government-funded nanotech grant proposals, reflects Sheremeta's perspective. Two areas with the greatest number of scientists in pursuit of patents are detection of bacteria and contaminants, and development of better food storage.
Hongda Chen of the USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service in Washington, D.C., sees additional benefits in nutrition. People spend money on vitamins, minerals and other nutritional supplements out of concern that ordinary food isn't providing them adequately with nutrients. Adding encapsulated nano-nutrients to food and beverages provides a two-in-one solution, Chen says.
"Nutrient delivery through nanotechnology is an area that can help improve health and save money," he said. "This still requires more research, but that's the visionary goal."
Here are the top ten reasons why we should continue the conversation about using nanotechnology in food. Each point on the list is illustrated with at least one example the experts found to be especially useful or promising. Though several innovations on the list are still cooking on the proverbial laboratory backburner and may not be in the food production web for a few more years, others are being served up right now.
1. CONTAMINATION SENSOR
A University of Rochester Medical Center team has given quality assurance staff a way to immediately detect E. coli bacteria in a food sample by using a digital camera and a laser. The team's research measuring and detecting light scattering by cell mitochondria evolved toward development of a system detecting light scattering in the presence of E. coli bacteria. A protein of the bacterium set on a silicon chip binds with any other E. coli bacteria present in the food sample. This binding results in a nano-sized light scattering detectable by analysis of digital images. A biosensor developed by an Agricultural Research Service scientist in Athens, Georgia, and his university colleagues uses fluorescent dye particles attached to bacteria antibodies. If Salmonella bacteria are present in the food being tested, the nano-sized dye particles become visible. No need to send out to the lab and wait days for culturing results with these two examples of instantaneous sensors.
2. ANTIMICROBIAL PACKAGING
Foods such as cheese, sliced meat and bakery that are prone to spoiling on the surface have been the focus for contact packaging imbued with antimicrobials. Spanish researchers and the manufacturer Artibal SA have brought to market a food film for bakery products that incorporates the essential oil of cinnamon. Working with oregano oil and apple puree, scientists for the USDA Agricultural Research Service have created edible food films that are able to kill certain E. coli. Britain's University of Leeds is testing packaging made with nano particles of zinc, calcium, magnesium oxide and titanium dioxide -- materials that are more cheaply sourced than nano silver, the now-controversial forerunner for antimicrobial packaging and food storage boxes.
3. IMPROVED FOOD STORAGE
Nanoclays embedded in plastic bottles and nylon food films stiffen packaging and reduce gas permeability. The nano-enhanced barrier keeps oxygen-sensitive foods fresher and can reduce packaging costs for manufacturers. Bayer Polymers has created a low cost nanoclay composite interior coating for paperboard cartons to keep juice fresher. And are you ready for beer in plastic bottles? Nanocomposites such as Nanocor's Imperm or Honeywell's Aegis OX with oxygen radical scavenging ability give plastic bottle manufacturers a 6-month shelf life for their beer.
4. ENHANCED NUTRIENT DELIVERY
Nano-encapsulating takes the process of micro encapsulation, a means for drug delivery pioneered by the pharmaceutical industry, and improves solubility of vitamins, antioxidants, healthy omega oil fractions and other nutrients. Israel's NutraLease won a Food Expo Innovation Award last year from the IFT for their process. Nano-nutrient particles are fully soluble and invisible in water and oil, widening the door for potential nutraceutical beverages.
5. GREEN PACKAGING
Biodegradable bioplastics, usually made from plant-based materials, have become a big research focus for nanotechnology these days. Plantic, a company in Australia, manufactures their packaging from the starch of organic, non genetically modified corn. Using chitin, the main component of lobster shells, Jochen Weiss at the University of Hohenheim in Germany and Jose Maria Lagaron of the Agrochemistry and Food Technology Institute in Spain are just two of many materials scientists world wide who work with the electrospinning of this natural polymer. Chitosan is dissolved in solvent and the solution drawn through a tiny hole with applied electricity, a long, nano-slim fiber spins out from the hole. These strong and naturally antimicrobial nano fibers from a sustainable source can be developed into green food packaging.
6. PESTICIDE REDUCTION
A Cornell University team headed by textile scientist Margaret Frey developed a cloth farmers can use to reduce the amount of crop agrichemicals. Planted along with seeds, the cloth's saturated nano fibers slowly release pesticides and herbicides so that additional spraying of crops becomes unnecessary. The targeted release also eliminates chemical leaching into the water supply to benefit both consumers and the environment.
7. TRACKING, TRACING; BRAND PROTECTION
California's Oxonica makes Nanobarcodes from nano-particles that contain silver and gold stripes varying in width, length and amount, such that billions of combinations can be created to tag individual products. The barcodes have been primarily used to assure brand and authenticity in pharmaceuticals, but applications could be forthcoming in tracing food batches. Combined with pathogen sensors, the barcodes that must be read by modified microscopes could trace sources of outbreak.
Scaling down the size of food molecules to nano-sized crystals creates more particles for an overall greater surface area. Wageningen University in central Holland has developed water-in-oil-in-water emulsions of nano-sized lipids. Food technologists say food spreadability and stability improve as a result of incorporating these multiple emulsions, as they're called. For example a low-fat mayonnaise formulation provides a satisfying fatty mouth feel, tasters said, such that extra stabilizers and thickeners aren't needed to achieve the desirable texture. The nano-emulsion could have its application in formulating other low-fat products.
San Diego-based Senomyx has created novel flavors such as cold and creamy based on a rethinking of how taste buds perceive flavor. Using nanoscale assays, researchers have identified which individual cells on a given taste bud perceive a flavor. Each cell would recognize just one of the five main flavors -- bitter, salty, sweet, sour and umami. Working within this conceptualization, the company has developed a library of flavors, including compounds called bitter blockers. These specialized molecules trick the tongue into not tasting the bitterness naturally inherent in foods such as cocoa or soy. These bitter blockers as well as Senomyx's sweet and salty enhancers have already gotten the nod of approval from food giants such as Nestle and Coca Cola who are responding to consumer desires for packaged foods and beverages formulated with less salt and sugar.
10. BACTERIA IDENTIFICATION AND ELIMINATION
Researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina have developed a chicken feed to remove campylobacter, a bacteria common and benign in poultry that provokes cramps and diarrhea in people ingesting the contaminated, undercooked meat. The feed enriched by nano carbohydrate particles binds with the bacterium's surface to remove it through the bird's feces. These nano particles might one day be combined with sensors in order to identify and remove other bacteria. Eventually, researchers say, these antibiotic-functioning nanoparticles might even be applied to targeting and treating bacterial disease in humans. But for now, use in chickens might reduce the one million annual outbreaks of campylobacteriosis in Americans.
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