Mindful Metropolis March 2010 : Page 34

nanofood? I Nanotechnology isn’t just coming to a supermarket near you—it’s already there By mark andreW Boyer t has been called “the new asbestos,” “genetic engineering on steroids” and even “the next industrial revolution.” Nanotechnology isn’t just coming to a supermarket near you—it’s al- ready there. Scientists and food manufacturers are thrilled about nanotechnology’s potential to help improve the safety, packaging and pro- cessing of food, but critics warn that nanopar- ticles can act in unpredictable ways that could present serious health and safety concerns. Th e prefi x “nano-” means one-billionth, and although defi nitions vary, nanotechnology typ- ically deals with substances that are between 1 and 100 nanometers (or about 1/10,000th the width of a human hair). Th e extremely small size of nanoparticles enables them to cover a much greater relative surface area and perform diff erent functions than bulk materials. “Th e typical example I give is if you drop a block of ice into a swimming pool,” says George Kimbrell from the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco. “It will dissolve much slower than if you took that block of ice and broke it into one- inch ice cubes and threw those ice cubes in.” Nanotechnology research is still in its in- fancy, according to University of Illinois food science professor Jozef Kokini, and it will probably change the food landscape in un- precedented ways in the not-so-distant fu- ture. Th at prospect has food manufacturers salivating. Big food companies dream of cre- ating nano-coatings that could give fresh pro- duce a shelf life of more than a month, nano delivery systems that would enhance the fl a- 34 march 2010 vor and color of food, and nano-sensors that could prevent the next E. Coli outbreak. the nanotech naysayers Materials assembled at the nanoscale have unique properties that present new possibilities for technological advancement, but they also introduce some new potential hazards. “When you’re in the nano range of one to several hun- dred nanometers, materials act fundamentally diff erent from the same materials in their larger bulk material form,” explains Kimbrell. “That means they have funda- mentally different chemical, physical, biological properties, properties that we don’t really understand.” Critics warn that nanoparticles have greater access to our bodies than larger particles, be- cause they’re small enough to slip through cell walls, and once they’re inside they could potentially compromise the immune system’s ability to respond. Nanoparticles have also suc- cessfully crossed the blood-brain barrier, a bar- rier that protects the brain from infection and that was previously thought to be nearly im- penetrable. Th at discovery could revolutionize brain cancer treatment, but it raises red fl ags for other nanotechnology applications. “Basically, they just have access to places that other substances in our environment, our body, can keep out and that’s a scary proposition when you start talking about intentionally ingesting or putting that sub- stance into the body,” says Kimbrell. So far, the most conclusive evidence prov- ing the danger of nanotechnology is a 2008 study linking carbon nanotubes to mesothe- lioma, the form of cancer caused by inhaling asbestos fi bers. Of course, carbon nanotubes wouldn’t be put in food—they’re used in elec- tronics and as structural reinforcement—but the fi nding raises the concern that new uses of nanotechnology could be harmful in ways that haven’t yet been discovered. Beyond the health and safety concerns, organic food advocates warn that the use of nanotechnology in the food industry will only serve to further the interests of industrial farm- ing. While organic farmers employ natural techniques and discourage the use of synthetic chemicals, nanotechnology presents an oppo- site, almost pharmaceutical approach to food production. “If you look at this technology, it’s a converging technology that’s going to further entrench us into an industrial agricultural sys- tem,” Kimbrell says. Th e increased surface-area-to-volume ratio of nanoparticles also makes nanotechnology attractive for use in pesticides and herbicides. So far, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn’t permitted any manufacturers to produce pesticides using nanotechnology, and the EPA actually fi ned a California company in

Nanofood?

Mark Andrew Boyer

It has been called “the new asbestos,” “genetic engineering on steroids” and even “the next industrial revolution.” Nanotechnology isn’t just coming to a supermarket near you—it’s already there. Scientists and food manufacturers are thrilled about nanotechnology’s potential to help improve the safety, packaging and processing of food, but critics warn that nanoparticles can act in unpredictable ways that could present serious health and safety concerns.<br /> <br /> Th e prefi x “nano-” means one-billionth, and although defi nitions vary, nanotechnology typically deals with substances that are between 1 and 100 nanometers (or about 1/10,000th the width of a human hair). Th e extremely small size of nanoparticles enables them to cover a much greater relative surface area and perform diff erent functions than bulk materials.<br /> <br /> “Th e typical example I give is if you drop a block of ice into a swimming pool,” says George Kimbrell from the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco. “It will dissolve much slower than if you took that block of ice and broke it into oneinch ice cubes and threw those ice cubes in.” Nanotechnology research is still in its infancy, according to University of Illinois food science professor Jozef Kokini, and it will probably change the food landscape in unprecedented ways in the not-so-distant future.<br /> <br /> Th at prospect has food manufacturers salivating. Big food companies dream of creating nano-coatings that could give fresh produce a shelf life of more than a month, nano delivery systems that would enhance the fl avor And color of food, and nano-sensors that could prevent the next E. Coli outbreak.<br /> <br /> the nanotech naysayers<br /> <br /> Materials assembled at the nanoscale have unique properties that present new possibilities for technological advancement, but they also introduce some new potential hazards. “When you’re in the nano range of one to several hundred nanometers, materials act fundamentally diff erent from the same materials in their larger bulk material form,” explains Kimbrell.<br /> <br /> Critics warn that nanoparticles have greater access to our bodies than larger particles, because they’re small enough to slip through cell walls, and once they’re inside they could potentially compromise the immune system’s ability to respond. Nanoparticles have also successfully crossed the blood-brain barrier, a barrier that protects the brain from infection and that was previously thought to be nearly impenetrable.<br /> <br /> Th at discovery could revolutionize brain cancer treatment, but it raises red fl ags for other nanotechnology applications.<br /> <br /> “Basically, they just have access to places That other substances in our environment, our body, can keep out and that’s a scary proposition when you start talking about intentionally ingesting or putting that substance into the body,” says Kimbrell.<br /> <br /> So far, the most conclusive evidence proving the danger of nanotechnology is a 2008 study linking carbon nanotubes to mesothelioma, the form of cancer caused by inhaling asbestos fi bers. Of course, carbon nanotubes wouldn’t be put in food—they’re used in electronics and as structural reinforcement—but the fi nding raises the concern that new uses of nanotechnology could be harmful in ways that haven’t yet been discovered.<br /> <br /> Beyond the health and safety concerns, organic food advocates warn that the use of nanotechnology in the food industry will only serve to further the interests of industrial farming.<br /> <br /> While organic farmers employ natural techniques and discourage the use of synthetic chemicals, nanotechnology presents an opposite, almost pharmaceutical approach to food production. “If you look at this technology, it’s a converging technology that’s going to further entrench us into an industrial agricultural system,” Kimbrell says.<br /> <br /> Th e increased surface-area-to-volume ratio of nanoparticles also makes nanotechnology attractive for use in pesticides and herbicides.<br /> <br /> So far, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn’t permitted any manufacturers to produce pesticides using nanotechnology, and the EPA actually fi ned a California company in 2008 for developing a pesticide using nanosilver.<br /> <br /> Nonetheless, environmentalists are still very concerned about the prospect of releasing manmade nanomaterials into the environment.<br /> <br /> Big food’s little secret<br /> <br /> Although they spend millions of dollars on nanotechnology research and development, food companies maintain a great deal of secrecy regarding nanotechnology programs.<br /> <br /> Several large food companies, including Kellogg, Nestlé and General Mills, are researching ways to enhance their products with nanotechnology, but you won’t find anything on the corporate websites about those developments.<br /> <br /> It hasn’t always been this way, though. In 2000, Kraft Foods launched the Nanotek Consortium, a collaboration between Kraft and 15 research labs and universities to study the possible uses and risks of nanotechnology.<br /> <br /> Perhaps sensing public unease over nanotechnology, Kraft renamed the consortium “the Interdisciplinary 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 intellectual property. However, many observers suggest that the food industry is keeping nanotechnology developments from public view for fear that they’ll scare off leery consumers.<br /> <br /> In January, the UK House of Lords Science and Technology Committee published a report criticizing the food industry for being too secretive about the current use of nanotechnology 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.<br /> <br /> If you want to build confidence you should be open rather than secretive.”<br /> <br /> Would you like paper or microencapsulation?<br /> <br /> Most of the food products containing nanotechnology that are on the market now are in the food packaging department. Miller Brewing uses clay nanoparticles in plastic beer bottles that promise to trap carbon monoxide 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,” according to the corporate website) that serves the same function as plastic wrap.<br /> <br /> Edible food products containing nano ingredients are less common, but some are emerging. Among the companies developing new nano products is Chicago-based Nu- Mega Ingredients, which uses microencapsulation technology to enhance breads, cereals and dairy products with omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil. The nano-capsules don’t actually open until they reach your stomach, so the foods don’t taste like fish oil.<br /> <br /> Although other food products containing nanotechnology do exist, pinning down the exact number is itself a challenge. The Woodrow 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 products containing nanomaterials. “With no labeling in place anywhere in the world for nanomaterials for food products and food packaging, it’s definitely hard to tell what’s going on,” explains Friends of the Earth health and environmental campaigner Ian Illuminato.<br /> <br /> Will the regulators step up?<br /> <br /> 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 funding to conduct the necessary toxicological studies. Food safety advocates aren’t the only ones that are critical of the lack of nanotechnology 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.<br /> <br /> There is hope that the Obama administration will turn that around though. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t taken a position on nanotechnology yet, but speaking at a nanoscience conference in June, FDA food safety official Annette McCarthy announced that the agency is in the process of developing a guidance document for nanotechnology in food. More recently, President Obama allocated $119 million to nanotechnology environmental health and safety research in his 2011 budget proposal, a 35-percent Increase over last year’s request.<br /> <br /> Until more studies are conducted and more risks are demonstrated, many scientists are unwilling 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 whether 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.”<br /> <br /> If we can get all of our basic nutrients and vitamins in micro-capsules, what incentive will we have to eat good food? Illuminato offers a simple solution: “What it comes down to, I’d recommend that consumers veer away from processed foods.”<br /> <br /> Read more about this topic at mindful metropolis.com/blog.<br /> <br /> Mark Andrew Boyer is a Chicago-based freelance writer and co-producer of Organic Nation.tv.

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