Mindful Metropolis March 2010 : Page 35

2008 for developing a pesticide using nanosilver. Nonetheless, environmentalists are still very concerned about the prospect of releasing man- made nanomaterials into the environment. Big food’s little secret Although they spend millions of dollars on nanotechnology research and development, food companies maintain a great deal of se- crecy regarding nanotechnology programs. Several large food companies, including Kel- logg, Nestlé and General Mills, are research- ing ways to enhance their products with nano- technology, but you won’t find anything on the corporate websites about those developments. It hasn’t always been this way, though. In 2000, Kraft Foods launched the Nanotek Con- sortium, a collaboration between Kraft and 15 research labs and universities to study the possible uses and risks of nanotechnology. Perhaps sensing public unease over nanotech- nology, Kraft renamed the consortium “the In- terdisciplinary Network of Emerging Science and Technologies” in 2004, downplaying its role in the consortium. Part of the reason for maintaining secrecy is certainly to protect in- tellectual property. However, many observers suggest that the food industry is keeping nano- technology developments from public view for fear that they’ll scare off leery consumers. In January, the UK House of Lords Science and Technology Committee published a report criticizing the food industry for being too se- cretive about the current use of nanotechnolo- gy in food and food packaging. “They got their fingers burnt over the use of GM crops and so they want to keep a low profile on this issue,” Lord Krebs told the BBC. “We believe that they should adopt exactly the opposite approach. If you want to build confidence you should be open rather than secretive.” Would you like paper or microencapsulation? Most of the food products containing nano- technology that are on the market now are in the food packaging department. Miller Brew- ing uses clay nanoparticles in plastic beer bottles that promise to trap carbon monox- ide in while keeping oxygen out, giving beer a shelf life of up to six months. Numerous nutritional supplements contain “nanoized” ingredients that claim to be more effective than traditional, non-nano ingredients. And just this summer, the company Constantia Multifilm debuted a product called N-Coat, which is an ultra-thin clear laminate (“with outstanding gas barrier properties,” accord- ing to the corporate website) that serves the same function as plastic wrap. Edible food products containing nano in- gredients are less common, but some are emerging. Among the companies developing new nano products is Chicago-based Nu- Mega Ingredients, which uses microencapsu- lation technology to enhance breads, cereals and dairy products with omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil. The nano-capsules don’t actu- ally open until they reach your stomach, so the foods don’t taste like fish oil. Although other food products containing nanotechnology do exist, pinning down the exact number is itself a challenge. The Wood- row Wilson International Center for Scholars sets the number at 84; the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies has the number at 98; and in a 2008 report on nanofood, Friends of the Earth identified 104 food and cosmetic prod- ucts containing nanomaterials. “With no label- ing in place anywhere in the world for nanoma- terials for food products and food packaging, it’s definitely hard to tell what’s going on,” ex- plains Friends of the Earth health and environ- mental campaigner Ian Illuminato. Will the regulators step up? Governments around the world have been slow to act on nanotechnology regulation because the potential risks are still unknown; there simply hasn’t been enough time or fund- ing to conduct the necessary toxicological studies. Food safety advocates aren’t the only ones that are critical of the lack of nanotech- nology regulation. Since 2008, the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences have both publicly criticized the federal government’s inaction on funding nanotechnology risk-assessment research. There is hope that the Obama administra- tion will turn that around though. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t taken a position on nanotechnology yet, but speak- ing at a nanoscience conference in June, FDA food safety official Annette McCarthy an- nounced that the agency is in the process of developing a guidance document for nano- technology in food. More recently, President Obama allocated $119 million to nanotech- nology environmental health and safety re- search in his 2011 budget proposal, a 35-per- cent increase over last year’s request. Until more studies are conducted and more risks are demonstrated, many scientists are un- willing to take a position for or against the use of nanotechnology in food. “At this juncture we don’t have a good understanding yet of wheth- er there are any risks and what those risks might be,” says Kokini. “I think until we do the actual experiments, until we look at the ability of nanoparticles to comfortably penetrate cells and organisms, we are not in a position to say, if they do what exactly they do.” Even if nanoparticles don’t pass through certain cells in the human body, there’s another possible health concern: That nanotechnology will ultimately steer consumers away from eating fruits and vegetables to get a balanced diet. If we can get all of our basic nutrients and vitamins in micro-capsules, what incentive will we have to eat good food? Illuminato of- fers a simple solution: “What it comes down to, I’d recommend that consumers veer away from processed foods.” Read more about this topic at mindful metropolis.com/blog. Mark Andrew Boyer is a Chicago-based freelance writer and co-producer of Organic Nation.tv. mindfulmetropolis.com 35

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