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Nanotechnology in the Food Industry

In: Computers and Technology

Submitted By Rom1990
Words 1912
Pages 8
What is nanotechnology?
In a recent survey, less than half of UK consumers were successfully able to define the meaning of nanotechnology as a “technology that involves using very small particles”, i.e. controlling matter at an atomic or molecular scale, measured in nanometers. After all, no internationally agreed definition currently exists.
It has filled the food industry with big ideas, but confusion and concerns have stalled the process of product development in big food company R&D departments.
Therefore, there is still a long way to go before ideas in a lab or turned into commercially viable innovations.

Application in the food industry
In the food industry, the technology could have a variety of uses including detecting bacteria in packaging, delivering nutrients in small doses, or producing stronger flavors and colorings. In what seems to be a miracle cure to obesity and diabetes, oil droplets containing nano-sized water particles could be used to reduce the fat content of foods such as mayonnaise, cream and chocolate while retaining good sensory properties.
There are a myriad of other potential applications in the food sector ranging from emulsions and nano-encapsulations on the formulation side to nano-coatings for processing equipment on the factory floor, which would ease the cleaning burden at food plants.
Other interesting applications included nano-sensors that could detect pathogens and nano particles that could purify water in developing countries.
Nevertheless, picking which research projects or even application areas will result in new and exciting products is not a straightforward affair. Nano-filters that remove peanut allergens or filter out free radicals had being picked out as promising area years ago but today there is very little activity to be seen.
Research group iRAP reported that in 2008 the nano-enabled food and drinks packaging market was worth $4.13bn. Going on to 2010, the business is supposedly worth $20 billion annually, according to analysts. Government in Europe has pumped £1.7 billion in research money into the field over the past eight years.
Back in 2008 - before global recession took hold - corporate investment accounted for 47 percent of the funding going into research and development projects for nanotechnology, more than government (46 percent) or venture capital, at seven percent.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) keeps what is widely seen as the most accurate inventory of commercial nanotechnology applications. As of July 29, 2009, the inventory included about 800 products, including 74 food and beverage applications, and three foods.

The benefits for packaging
Packaging is the most well-known and beneficial area for nanotechnology. Some new nano-packaging products are expected to hit the stores in the coming one or two years. Let’s see what this is about:
Nano-sensors that respond to the release of particular chemicals - like a specific chemical released when a certain food begins to spoil - can be incorporated into the packaging. As soon as the food starts to go bad, the packaging will change color to alert the consumer, a system far more accurate and safe than sell-by dates, which, by comparison, are primitive and crude.
Nano-composite plastics are also enabling packaging that absorbs oxygen, making food last longer, and that also block out smells and prevent the packaging from absorbing any of the flavor or vitamin content of the food.

Food companies’ response
Many large food companies have quietly stopped issuing press releases to promote their ongoing research to the wider public - although it is still available and discussed within the scientific community.
Nestlé and Unilever are reportedly exploring nano-particle emulsions that would make food textures more uniform, which could be useful in reducing the fat content of products like ice cream and salad dressing. Indeed, Unilever is currently sponsoring a secret research project by a leading British agricultural science institution into how to reduce the levels of saturated fat in cow's milk. But they are worried about profitability. One of the main concerns that may stop large companies from publicizing their investment in nanotechnology is its acceptance by consumers. Technology developers need to work with educators. The knowledge gap needs to be filled.
Unilever is in favour of labelling nanoparticles in products “where the labels provide meaningful and specific information to consumers”, to quote a Unilever spokeperson. But it is not in favour of logos alerting shoppers to the presence of nanomaterials, which “could be seen as risk warnings”, said the firm. On another lever, Unilever do support “the evolution, where necessary, of the current legislative framework based on scientific risks assessment”.
While some companies have stopped talking about their research so openly, there is concern that others may be put off investing in the field altogether.
Kraft Foods is one company to have taken a deliberate step away from the emerging technology, and claims to be taking more of a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. This is significant as Kraft was once considered a leader in the sector for its investigation into potential uses for the technology for the food industry; in 2000, it set up the Nanotek Consortium, a collaboration of 15 universities and national research labs. Kraft has since diverted the consortium to sister organization Philip Morris USA and renamed it the Interdisciplinary Network of Emerging Science and Technologies.
Kraft’s website holds a statement on nanotechnology, which says that the company is not currently using the technology but that its R&D teams “keep their eyes on the scientific research, as well as consider potential applications where nanotechnology may be used in packaging material.”
Yet, we can’t help but remember when, a couple of years ago, Kraft Foods received international attention for imagining what is still the most widely cited example of nano-food. You might have though Willy Wonka’s full three-course dinner chewing gum was far-fetched. But Kraft Foods is in the process of inventing a clear, tasteless nano-drink that contained hundreds of flavours in invisible nanocapsules. The idea is that a microwave transmitter could be used to trigger release of the colour, flavour, concentration and texture of the individual's choice. However in the past few years, sensing mounting concern over nano-manipulation of food, Kraft no longer talks publicly about its research into nano foods. For all that, major companies are likely to favor outsourcing over internal development. Big international food companies are pouring money into nanotechnology R&D, but this is a high-risk business, and they would rather just buy the mature product.
The unwillingness of food companies to talk about their current use of nanotechnology in food production and their plans for its future use is a huge a blow to transparency. Without any requirement for manufacturers to label nano-foods, or any willingness on the part of companies to do so voluntarily, there is no way for people to choose whether or not to eat nano-foods. This breach of public trust is compounded by government's failure to regulate nano-food products to ensure that workers, the public and the environment do not face unsafe exposure to nanomaterials.

Current hurdles & perceived dangers
The recession has probably put a break on nano research. Because commercialization is often some way off nanotech research projects can come under threat when budgets are squeezed.
Not enough is presently known about the effects of NMs (nanomaterials) on the human body. Matter has different behavior at nano-scales than at normal scale. Aluminum, for example, is stable in the ‘big world’ but explosive at nano-levels. Some metals will kill bacteria at nano-scale – hence the interest in using them in food packaging – but what will happen if they get off the packaging and into us? No one seems to know. The size question is central to these concerns. Nano particles that are under 100 nano-meters wide – less than the size of a virus – have unique abilities. They can cross the body’s natural barriers, entering into cells or through the liver into the bloodstream or even through the cell wall surrounding the brain. Therefore, everyone must ask if the benefits outweigh the risks.
Methods for detection and description of NMs in food are not readily available as yet. In many instances, claims about the presence of NMs in food products could not be verified and people have to rely on information provided by the industry, producers and marketing organizations. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that the potential health and environmental risks of nanoscale materials be assessed before they are introduced into food.
There needs to be much more investment in research looking at the technology’s safety. Current annual global spending on nanotechnology is around $9bn, but only about 4 % ($39m) of that is used to analyze potential risks to human health and the environment.
More than 90% of the UK population is confused or concerned about whether they would buy food containing manufactured nano-particles, according to research conducted by British Market Research Bureau (BMRB).
Given the low-level of familiarity with nanotechnology, researchers warn that plans to label food and drinks which contain man-made nano-particles could lead to media-fuelled scare stories and ultimately rejection by consumers.

Effectively demonstrating solid benefits for consumers would be crucial for the successful introduction of nanotechnology in a broader range of food products. However, the question of which benefits would be convincing enough to sway consumers remained open for debate.
Among some scientists in the field there is a real sense that nano-technology, in food at least, is a revolution that may die in its cradle - rejected by a public that has lost its trust in scientists and its patience with industry's profit-driven fooling with what we eat.
Regardless, it seems fair to say that we will be seeing an increasing number of nanotech applications hit the food industry, with some potentially amazing results, from health and safety benefits to programmable, personalized food. Let's just hope that unfounded public fear doesn't cripple the wave of innovation, as it did with genetically modified foods.

Food Production Daily website: * * * * * * * * *

Food Navigator website: * * *

The Guardian: * “Welcome to the world of nano food”, by Alex Renton,,,1971266,00.html
* “Safer and guilt-free nano foods”, by Josh Wolfe, October 8th 2005,

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